Emotions and Empathy

Two myths about autism related to emotions are that 1) people with autism do not feel or express any emotion and 2) people with autism cannot understand emotions of others (Autism Speaks, 2018). However, if you have ever had the pleasure of spending time with someone who has autism, I am certain you recognize the complete misconception of these myths. It is critical to recognize that people with autism DO have emotions and CAN understand the emotions of others. Depending on the individual’s abilities, they might need support, like ABA, to help them better perceive their emotions and also increase their awareness on how others feel, including how to recognize and interpret nonverbal cues (e.g., raised eyebrows, sighs, furrowed brow, etc.) associated with many emotions. Today, we will discuss how both ABA address emotions and empathy, as well as, some tips to try at home!

Addressing Emotions in Applied Behavior Analysis  

  • The first step is to teach the child how to label (tact) emotions through pictures/videos and demonstration. For example, a therapist makes a sad face and asks, “How do I feel?” Or while watching the movie Frozen, and Olaf is smiling asks, “How do you think Olaf feels?”
  • This is frequently paired with teaching the child how to produce different facial expressions. For example, a therapist says, “show me mad” and the child shows a mad facial expression. To increase self-awareness, incorporating a mirror can be helpful so that the child can see exactly what their expression looks like.  
Once the child is able to consistently produce facial expressions related to different emotions in contrived situations, and label other people’s emotions, the next step is to teach the child how to identify their own emotions in the natural context. For example, a therapist asks, “How do you feel?” while a child is laughing and prompts him/her to say, “I’m happy!”  The ultimate goal is for the child to independently label their own emotions across a variety of situations.

                                                                                                         I’m so happy!  

Addressing Empathy in Applied Behavior Analysis

  • Empathy is a social interaction skill that involves understanding what another person is feeling and taking the other person’s point of view into account. Understanding emotions, both in others and in themselves are prerequisites to learning empathy.
  • There are four behaviors associated with empathy: verbal statements (e.g., “Are you okay?”) intonation of voice (e.g., sad intonation), facial expressions (e.g., lowered eyebrows) and gestures (e.g., placing palm gently on person’s arm) (Argott, Townsend, & Poulson, 2017). All of these examples would be expected responses if you saw someone hurt.
  • Techniques used to teach these behaviors include role-playing a variety of situations, social stories and/or social scripts, and natural environmental teaching.

Retrieved from dreamstime.com (Boy helping another kid.)

Tips and Ideas at Home

  • Model empathy with others and with your child. We all learn not only by doing but also watching others.
  • Label your child’s emotions while it is occurring. For example, if your child is upset because he/she cannot go to Target, say “I see you’re frustrated…”
  • Connect behaviors with feelings. For example, say “Your sister is upset because you took her toy.” or asking, “Why do you think your sister is upset?”
  • Encourage your child to help others. For example, if brother is picking up toys that he was playing with, have his sibling help put the toys away too. 

In conclusion, empathy is not an easy skill to develop and requires many sub-skills. Regardless if a child has autism or not, empathy is a skill that has to be fostered and cultivated. With it being the month of February, it is a very fitting time to focus on emotions and empathy. Happy Valentine’s Day!


11 Myths About Autism. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/11-myths-about-autism

Argott, P.J., Townsend, D.B., & Poulson, C.L.  (2017).  Acquisition and generalization of complex empathetic responses among children with autism.  Behavior Analysis in Practice, 10, 107-117.  doi: 10.1007/s40617-016-0171-7

For Families: 5 Tips for Cultivating Empathy. (2018). Retrieved from https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-for-families/5-tips-cultivating-empathy