Emotions in Autism (Feeling, Understanding and Emotional Development)

Although there are many definitions of autism spectrum disorder, few of them mention how an individual with autism feels. We can only gain such a view of autism in line with the personal experiences of individuals with autism who can pass on their difficult emotions and experiences to us.

People with autism definitely share and feel the same emotions as people who do not have autism. Autism does not make people emotionless. In fact, emotions can be even more intense in autism. For some people with autism, the challenge lies in naming, understanding and expressing emotions.

The emotions that someone else experiences whether individuals with autism or normally developed people might not be the same as anyone else. The depth and variety differ from person to person. Some people are psychopaths, and feel only dim shades of emotion, if at all – and some people can become incapacitated by emotions so strong that they are basically unbearable.  

It does not mean that when individuals with autism have difficulties in expressing their feelings and find this situation challenging, they do not have feelings to express it. They can express their feelings differently to us. They can use different molds than we are used to. This does not mean that they do not have emotional capacities. In addition, as we all know, individuals with autism do not prefer to speak, they are generally silent. This does not mean that they have nothing to say, such as ideas, preferences, emotions and thoughts. Therefore, it should not be forgotten that for us, for the people around them, people with autism also have emotions. We must be sensitive and tolerant to them.

The myth that individuals with autism are less emotional, or not emotional, might come from the fact that they are less likely to express their emotions openly, because overall they are more alone in their world, so their first instinct is not to share their emotions.


Ekman, a scientist working on human facial expressions, has suggested that there are six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Ekman thinks that each emotion is a separate unit. Basic emotions are separate sets of affective states with different signaling, physiology, and evaluation mechanisms. Physiological changes that accompany emotions allow the organism to respond appropriately. Facial expressions, which are the expression of basic emotions, occur as a result of various position movements of the facial muscles and deformations of facial skin.  

Besides these six basic emotions which are happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust, human beings also experience more complex feelings like embarrassment, shame, pride, guilt, envy, joy, trust, interest, contempt, anticipation and so on. The ability to understand and express emotions starts developing from birth. Of course, we are speaking of typical development.


Autism spectrum disorders do not directly affect the ability to feel emotions. However, individuals with autism are often comorbid with alexithymia, which is difficulty identifying and describing emotions. Alexithymia often results in emotions feeling more like physical sensations.  

There are many reasons why you cannot communicate properly with people. Some people’s inability to communicate is because they have difficulty understanding others’ feelings and emotions. People who have difficulty understanding people’s feelings, emotions, and thoughts may feel like they have to try to please someone. However, this can cause great tension. The source of this tension is alexithymia.

“There is a boy who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. At the time he was a student, repeating his university finals and generally struggling to cope with everything life was throwing at him. When the diagnosis came, he says that it was a great relief to him. He realized that he has autism when he was around the age of 12, although for reasons he is not sure of, this never got properly followed up.  

That being said, there is one aspect of the life he has a bit of trouble with, and that is how intensely he feels emotions on the whole. He says that it can work in both positive and negative ways. He has been told before that his enthusiasm for his main interests is infectious and happy he rubs off on people in a good way. On the flip side, however, he also feels frustration and disappointment very keenly, and it feels like he has been through a wringer and completely takes the wind out of his sails.

He says that he is an introvert person which means that recharging his social battery alone after this happens is not a problem in the slightest, but stemming these emotions from getting the better of him is not always easy, and he is still learning how to manage these emotions. “

Understanding and Perceiving Emotions  

Even though babies diagnosed with autism may identify their emotions in a similar way to babies who have completed their development normally, they are slower to develop emotional responses compared to them. When they grow up, at the age of 5 to 7, they show their emotions when they are happy and sad, they can define these feelings. However, they may have difficulty understanding with expressions of fear and anger. During adolescence, teens with autism are still not as good at recognizing fear, anger, surprise, and disgust as much as their peers. Even in their adulthood, they continue to have difficulty recognizing some emotions.

Children on the spectrum have difficulties in perceiving others’ emotions and expressing their own feelings in emotional relationships with people, often not showing social or emotional reciprocity. As a result of these difficulties, they may not be able to interpret others’ body language, tone of voice, emotional signals (sent through facial expressions or posture) in social situations. Again, in situations that require social interaction, they may not be able to predict what the other party will say or do. They need external support in their ability to perceive and express emotions, unlike normally developed children.  

The indifference of individuals with autism even to the emotional reactions of the primary care mother, being bored quickly from all kinds of relationships, and even their strong resistance to communication affect their social-emotional development very negatively. Emotion perception and expression difficulties are also important social skills deficiencies.  

However, the findings in the studies on emotion perception skills in children with autism are contradictory. In some of these studies, it was found that individuals with autism did not have significant difficulties in perceiving emotional facial expressions, and in some of them, perception disorders were reported. Studies on the ability to express emotions in children with autism reported quite consistent results, in contrast to studies on emotion perception skills.  

The general acceptance is that there are significant differences in emotion labeling and expression skills between children with autism and normally developed children. However, the ability to understand emotions is an important concept in the development of children. This skill includes the ability to relate emotional signals (sent through facial expressions or postures), emotional states, and contexts. There is an opportunity to observe this skill that develops and becomes complex even in the very early stages of life.

Nevertheless, children on the spectrum do not look at their mothers for a long time, they cannot behave socially, pointing or bringing objects of interest, showing behaviors, labeling complex emotions, perform worse than the children in the comparison group and have serious problems in connecting the emotions to a cause. In particular, it is stated that they have difficulties in expressing positive effect in mutual social interactions that require verbal or non-verbal messages between 2 or more individuals.  

In studies, it was reported that individuals with autism look at the mouth region rather than looking at the eyes while talking, and they have difficulty in recognizing facial expressions. In addition, it is shown that Individuals with autism interpret expressions that are ambiguous and unable to make sense as more negative emotions. There are flaws in many stages of facial processing in autism (perception of gaze, recognition of facial identity and emotional expression).  

Social interaction and communication are based on recognizing and responding to the rapid fluctuations in the emotional state of other people. Understanding the emotional state of others requires focusing on information from the eyes. Evolutionary obtaining the inner state of another from the faces is a vital source of information. For example, the contrast eye structure provided by the black pupil on a white background in primates is a unique source of information in providing an understanding of one’s gaze and the intentions of others. This process is thought to be carried out subconscious.  

Perceiving and recognizing facial expressions is one of the basic social-cognitive skills for human beings. Interpersonal relations and social agreement are extensions of this basic function. Emotional facial expressions, which are defined as automatic views of an individual’s emotional experience, are understood through the effect of social context. In addition to the presence of social interaction problems in autism spectrum disorder, the ability to recognize emotions is also negatively affected.  

As the expression of each emotion, subjective facial expressions contain certain structural features with definite boundaries. Another view suggests that emotions are not discrete categories, but emotions are continuous in space. In addition, some emotion facial expressions are composed of separate categories, while most emotion facial expressions are mentioned in the presence of fuzzy facial categories where multiple emotion categories are mixed to varying degrees.  

Deficiency in recognizing facial expressions in autism has been reported in many studies. Three-year-old children with autism have been shown to deny or neglect negative facial emotions (distress, fear, restlessness). For example, while often recognizing fear as angry, confused or disgusting, they did not differ from the control group in recognizing happy, sad and confused expressions correctly. In another study, it was found that girls who are diagnosed with autism had difficulty in recognizing the expressions of happiness and anger compared to the controls smaller than them.  

It has been reported that children with high functioning autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) are able to recognize basic emotions such as happy, angry, sad and scared, but have difficulty in recognizing more complex emotions such as surprise, pride, shame, and jealousy. However, in some studies, unlike previous studies, it was reported that children with autism, who are matched according to age and intelligence levels, did not differ in recognizing facial expressions. However, it has been reported that adults with autism have difficulties in recognizing negative facial emotions, as seen in children with autism.  

Anyone who has a child with autism knows that individuals with autism do have emotions. Regulation is the keyword in terms of emotions. In children with autism, it is generally not intrinsic. It must be learned. Studies show that children with autism may have greater difficulty with subtle emotions like shame and pride, things that are much more socially oriented. Those children often find it hard to recognize and control emotions.  

Adults with autism have both facial recognition and facial expressions of emotions. Significantly less neural activation was reported in open or implicit expressions in adults with autism than in healthy controls. In autism, there may be problems in recognizing vague expressions rather than prominent facial expressions. Individuals with autism perceive ambiguous pictures as more negative emotions, while they recognize the exaggerated emotions better. Similarly, it was reported that individuals with autism who have difficulty in recognizing neutral facial expressions interpret the facial expressions significantly.  

There is new research on the emotions of people in the spectrum. Thanks to these studies, we learned for the first time that adults in the spectrum can recognize complex emotions. Adults with autism can quickly think about how events, situations, and emotions can get better or worse than reality, according to the research, then judge whether regret or relaxation will occur. An adult with autism recognizes the regret feelings of people around them, like normally developed adults, and is even better at recognizing the sense of relaxation.

In some studies, it was observed that individuals with autism had no difficulty in recognizing facial expressions and therefore strategies for recognizing facial expressions in autism were examined. It was observed that children with autism focused more on the lower half of the face than the upper half of the healthy controls. In addition, it was stated that eye gaze duration and emotion recognition skill can be a positive predictor. Therefore, they may have more difficulty in recognizing some facial expressions in autism.  

In autism, facial recognition and the ability to recognize emotions from facial expressions are due to problems that may exist from birth (automatic orientation to face) and that occur in learning processes (identity and emotion processing) during developmental periods.  

Feeling and Expressing Emotions  

Of the many stereotypes surrounding autism spectrum disorder, one of the most persistent has been the notion of people with autism as emotionless, even slightly robotic. Individuals with autism certainly have emotions as anyone who has a child with autism knows. However, According to studies, it shows that children with autism have more difficulty with subtle emotions that require social orientation and social understanding. And these kids in the spectrum have more difficulty reading the emotions of other people around them.

In addition to identifying and understanding the emotions of other people around them, people with autism may have a harder time processing and understanding their own emotions as well. Rather than lacking emotion, it is likely that they struggle to think through and work through the emotions they feel.

There is a misunderstanding but everyone believes that people on the spectrum are emotionless or they have few. But, it doesn’t have a scientific base and it is not true at all. They may become emotional for different reasons or express their emotions in a different way. Just because they are different from us doesn’t mean that they don’t have any emotions. They have just as many feelings as us. In some cases, they may be even more emotional and more sensitive than some of their normally developed peers. So, in order to express their emotions, they may need help in getting it right.

Individuals with autism may not express emotions in a typical or easily identifiable fashion. However, it does not mean they are not there. It is just that they are not interpreting them, and that is not necessarily their fault. Individuals with autism who are non-verbal have difficulty expressing themselves period, and it can lead us to the assumption that they are not feeling anything at all.

People with autism may be overwhelmed by their internal experience. This can prevent them from correctly matching their own feelings with other people’s emotions and may have difficulty understanding others’ feelings. There are typical beliefs about the emotional skills of people with autism, but there are also some evidence that proves otherwise. If people with autism do not establish emotional connections because they are overwhelmed, the treatment to be applied to them is very different from the treatment to be applied considering that they lack emotion. The study can lead to better ways for people on the spectrum to manage their emotions and deal with social situations.

In the first few years of life, the way babies diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and children who have completed their development normally express their feelings are similar. When they reach school age, children with mild autism tend to express their feelings in a similar way to their peers, but identifying and naming these feelings can also be difficult. They may say they don’t feel a certain feeling. Many children of the same age and more severe autism have less emotional expression than their peers. Children with autism may appear to be unresponsive or emotional responses can sometimes be the first to appear.

Children with this condition often tend to move excessively when they are extremely irritable or angry, even those with high function. They can act in a way that will surprise or shock people around them. For example;

  • They may have a meltdown in a similar way to a much younger child, with tears and shouting
  • They may run away from a difficult situation, sometimes in a dangerous setting such as a busy street or supermarket.
  • They may become aggressive or self-abusive.
  • They may overreact to the situation and be unable to self-calm.
  • They may be unable to process logical information that, in another situation, would help them in order to calm down.
  • They may become too upset to listen to calming suggestions from parents, teachers, or therapists.  

Children diagnosed with autism have difficulty regulating their emotions. It is very difficult for them to stay calmly. In addition, they cannot verbally express or understand other ways, even if they deal with some of the restrictions they feel.

For decades, people have been believing that people on the spectrum cannot feel or express any emotions whether basic or complicated. But the truth is not like that. Autism does not make an individual unable to feel the emotions other people feel, it just makes the person communicate emotions and perceive other’s expressions in different ways.

That they have difficulty in defining and discussing their emotions does not mean that individuals with autism have no emotions. Certainly, they have feelings and emotions too, simple or complex. In some cases, it is possible that they feel more intense than us. It looks like it was. They can internalize the feelings of others, even if they never make it clear from the outside. So when someone gets upset, they can get upset too quickly and easily.

This internalization is more common in those with Asperger Syndrome than in the general population. They may not show their feelings in the same way or the same extent as us. They may show emotions and feelings less outward, or their facial expressions may not match what they feel inside the individual.

At the same time, despite the fact that there is a stereotype that they are lack empathy, they have. In fact, in a recent study, it was found that individuals on the autism spectrum did not in any way differ from healthy controls in terms of their moral decision. Indeed, they made moral decisions which indicated that they were on average more averse to causing harm to others, even if this produced better outcomes.

There are several reasons why people with autism may be perceived as not having emotion. They may have different triggers than a normally developed individual. Because they tend to be concrete and literal, they may struggle to identify with, and therefore be emotional about, situations that they do not have a direct connection to, such as global tragedies, or people on the news. But, they may be very upset and emotional if their schedule is changed, or their environment is tampered with in some way.

It is also important to keep in mind that many of them have been bullied or excluded by peers in the past. People with autism can be and are extremely caring individuals. It is particularly common for them to feel and exhibit deep concern for human welfare, animal rights, environmental protection, and other global and humanitarian causes.

Encouraging Emotional Development  

Daily interactions can also be used as a tool. It is a method used to help a child with autism learn emotions and feelings. It helps to develop their ability to express their emotions and respond to them. The skills of individuals with autism in the field of emotional development can be improved. This can help them better understand and respond to other people around them. There are some ideas that may be useful to use.

  • Caregivers should be responsive. They should respond to their child’s emotions by saying, for example, ‘you are smiling, you must be happy’. They can also play up their own emotional responses. For instance, ‘I am so excited! Give me a high five’.
  • Caregivers can label emotions in natural contexts. They can point out and specify emotions, for example, while reading a book, watching a video or visiting friends with their child with autism. They might say, ‘Listen to me. He is running. He is happy. He is laughing.’
  • Caregivers can get their child’s attention. If they speak to their child with autism and get no response from her/him, they should speak again. They might need to do this in an exaggerated way early on to get her/his attention.
  • Caregivers can draw their child’s attention to another person. For example, they can ask someone else to tell their child what they said, to draw the child’s attention to another person who is speaking.
  • Caregivers should encourage looking and eye contact. They can encourage the child to look at them or anyone talking with the child when they are interacting, perhaps by joining in with whatever the child is doing. Or if the child asks for something, they could wait until the child looks at them and then give him/her what he/she wants.
  • Caregivers can use a bright voice with lots of expressions to get the child’s attention.
  • Emotion cards can be used in order to introduce emotions. These cards have pictures of faces, either real or cartoon, which caregivers can use to teach the child with autism basic emotions.
  • According to every need and each child, there is a wide range of therapies and interventions available. Some of which might be able to help the child with recognizing and showing emotions.

The 5-Point Emotion Scale  

There is a visual system that can help to organize an individual’s thinking when working through difficult moments, particularly those that require social understanding, which is called the 5-point scale. This scale would be very beneficial when it is used by individuals with autism.  

As we all know, it is one of the diagnostic criteria for autism in the social sense of inadequacy. An individual with autism is inadequate in understanding social behavior and in social life. Because of this inadequacy, they may have trouble understanding others’ emotions and intentions, they don’t know how to manipulate others and how to be manipulated by others, their social interactions and relations can go poorly. They have difficulties in social thinking and it can affect the ability to be comfortable in social situations. Also, it can cause social confusion and anxiety.

If they have social anxiety, which means everything is going to be worse for them in terms of working through big emotions. At this point, this scale takes place. Because most of them on the spectrum tend to learn through, concrete and predictable systems, so in order to work with those emotions, it can be created a visual system.

What is the first reason behind people using this scale to support emotional regulation? People use it generally to make problem areas clear for the person. So, after completed, what is the next step? It is breaking the problem into 5 parts. It gives you a chance to illustrate the problem and put information on the scale. Stress and anxiety are the most predominant issues about emotional regulation. So, as a conclusion, this is a good place to start, creating a scale that breaks down stress into the following 5 parts:

5 = This could make me lose control.

4 = This can really upset me.

3 = This can make me nervous.

2 = This sometimes bothers me.

1 = This never bothers me. *

It is important to get input from the person as much as possible. One way to do this is to create a pocket activity. The pocket activity can be purchased or it can be made using a file folder and library pockets. The caregiver, mostly parents, then generates a list of environments and social situations that the person with autism is exposed to every day and that might cause stress. Next, you make cards that can fit into the pockets with the situations and environments written on each card. Then, you can introduce the described scale to the child or student with autism by using the activity in order to visually illustrate and clarify.  

The person should hand one card and either has them read it or caregivers read it aloud. The person should be directed and they should put the card into the number pocket which is the best one describes how that situation makes them feel. There should be also some blank cards available in order to add situations that come up suddenly. Once the person with autism has rated a number of key situations, create a scale that clearly illustrates the results. This scale provides the foundation of an emotional regulation program.

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