Emotions, feelings, moods, facial expressions…

Just some food for thought, a quick bite, calling attention to what we teach people with autism about emotions and feelings, prompted by this piece in The Atlantic.Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 2.36.39 PM

“Conventional scientific wisdom recognizes six “classic” emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But the Glasgow scientists studied people’s facial expressions, and the emotions they signal, by showing people computer-generated facial animations. They asked the observers to characterize the faces based on those six basic emotions, and found that anger and disgust looked very similar to the observers in the early stages, as did fear and surprise. For example, both anger and disgust share a wrinkled nose, and both surprise and fear share raised eyebrows.” – http://bit.ly/1u8Ifu5

People with autism have difficulty discriminating facial expressions and connecting them to emotions. A disconnect from social, subtle stimuli makes it challenging. There is also face blindness (or Prosopagnosia) as described personally by John Elder Robison, for example. So we teach them to recognize emotions on facial expressions in vivo, in pictures, and film. For example,  we may show drawings like these and ask, “what is he feeling?”

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My concerns surround both the selection of  teaching targets and the teaching of a child’s own feelings*  and this post is about the former. First of all, there are emotions and there are feelings. And moods. And we tend to mix it all together. These are constructs and most of us are not experts in these. Get educated, think carefully and objectively about emotions, feelings, private events, and teach our students what they need to function better in their social environments.

Exemplified by what I see in the field and the available teaching materials online (and the research it appears!),  professionals are going overboard on the number of emotions / facial expressions they are planning and trying to teach. Please use caution before selecting emotion recognition as a target and what and how to teach.

As The Atlantic mentions,  the research suggested 4 “basic” emotions (“and not 6 as previously thought”) and everything else is cultural (of course). More importantly, it also suggests that we are not all as savvy as we tend to think when it comes to discriminating (in the study, labeling) more refined combinations of facial movements, or facial expressions showing these other less fundamental emotions. So, again, what does your student need to know to be a more socially skilled person, what is he/she exposed to in his/her natural environment?

This is a pretty generalizable example of the available materials:

Aussie Kids Coach emotions chart

Aussie Kids Coach

And of course, we don’t stop with the labeling / tacting and selecting. We may further present scenarios, both in pictures and narrated, and teach ask what the person might be feeling given that scenario. For example, we show a photo of a child messing up an assembled puzzle that another child had assembled, and ask the child with autism, “how do you think he/she (the one whose puzzle was destroyed) is feeling?”

*We also teach individuals to discriminate their own emotions. That gets even more complicated and even dangerous. We all learn about our own emotions and other private events early on, from our verbal community, our parents, relatives, teachers. They observe our behavior and make guesses about what we are feeling, they model the label, and we gradually learn to attach these labels to what we are feeling. An obvious example is when a child falls and scrapes his knee, there is a scrape and blood. We all know that it must hurt. We tell them “it hurts” and other words related to pain and injury. A more complicated example is headache, stomach ache, heartburn. And in the emotional / feelings realm, frustration, anger, boredom, anxiety. They cannot possibly feel exactly the same to al of us and yet it is the verbal community, people around us, that will have to help us contact our feeling and label it. This is a topic for another post, but it had to be mentioned here as it is intricately related to the teaching of emotions and feelings as described above, of others. Be careful with what words you put on your student’s mouth.