Autism manifests itself in many different ways, that’s why it’s described as a “spectrum disorder”. No one can make broad generalizations about any facet of autism because every individual with autism is a unique and special individual and will possess unique characteristics belonging to only him or her.
I have had many parents talk to me over the years about their desire to have their children understand emotions. This is a grave concern, especially if the child is nonverbal. I don’t know of any parent that does not desire their child to have the ability to express when they are experiencing an earache, a tummyache, etc. Even more potent, what parent does not crave to hear those three words, “I love you”, from their child?
I often explain to the families I work with that these are important skills for our children to learn, however, there are several prerequisite skills that our kids need to have in their repertoire prior to being able to express such inner thoughts. Our kids FEEL these thoughts but often are not equipped with the tools to communicate them effectively. We do know that before a child can label private thoughts to others, they need to have the ability to label things outside their own bodies. It does not matter if the child is verbal or communicates in some other manner (alternative augmentative system), if a child can’t look at a cup and say “that’s a cup”, they will not be able to say, “I hurt” or “I love you”.
I have worked with young children, adolescents, and adults and each has expressed emotions in very different ways. Verbal individuals might be able to express emotions such as “I’m angry” or “I’m bored” or “I’m sad”. When our verbal individuals express such thoughts it is important to know their cognitive level to be able to determine whether the statements match the situation. It’s the only way we’ll be able to assist in formulating an intervention or plan for them to deal with the emotion at hand and communicate their feeling effectively to others.
I have also worked with a multitude of nonverbal individuals with autism, and as we all are aware, the emotional expressions are not always an accurate assessment of what the individual with autism might actually be feeling and experiencing. I worked with a young man who often laughed excessively when he was in pain or otherwise uncomfortable.
Yes, individuals with autism DO feel the same emotions as typically developing individuals, that’s not a point of controversy. What makes these individuals unique is the inability to express such emotions in ways others can understand them, both verbally and nonverbally. So, we as educators and parents need to make sure that we teach these skills to our children in a very structured manner to ensure that they acquire the ability to communicate emotions effectively. There are many great teaching tools out there to assist in this end goal, most under the broad spectrum behavioral approach or applied behavior analysis (ABA).
This has been long enough! The next “debunking” post will talk a bit about the other side of emotions, empathy.