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May 26, 2011

Why Are Emotions Part of Speech Therapy?

Why do Speech and Language Pathologists often have goals for their students with autism related to identifying or understanding emotions? Scroll down for more…

The essence of speech therapy is improving communication—both communicating to others (“expressive”) and understanding the communication of others (“receptive”). Consider for a moment what strong emotions can do to your ability to effectively communicate. How many times have you been in a sputtering rage and unable to make an effective argument, only to have the “perfect” piece of pith pop into your head after you have calmed down? An emotion “leaving you speechless” is a cliché for good reason. Communicating effectively is exponentially more difficult for anyone in the grip of strong emotions.

Emotions as Part of Expressive Language

Most children with autism have great difficulty with emotional self-regulation, especially when it comes to managing strong emotions like frustration or anger. This puts them at a disadvantage from the outset. Add to that the frustration caused by difficulty communicating in general, as well as their inability to appropriately express that frustration, and you have a recipe for a vicious cycle that can cause an escalating spiral of behavioral problems in response.

Learning to recognize their emotions is an important foundation skill in expressive communication. It is the first step in the process of both learning how to regulate their emotions effectively (so they can “use their words”) and in learning how to appropriately express and diffuse those emotions. Regulating and expressing emotions appropriately, especially those emotions that are triggers for problem behaviors, can break the vicious cycle of negative emotions and deescalate the associated behavioral problems. All of which leads to better expressive communication (not to mention happier kids).

Part of Receptive Language Too

Learning to recognize their emotions is also an important foundation skill in receptive communication. Recognizing specific emotions in themselves makes them far more likely to be able to figure out the emotions of others. And understanding the emotions of others, and how those emotions affect meaning, is a fundamental part of understanding communication.

If you doubt that, think of the difference the emotional context makes to the exclamation, “You are sick!” An adult saying it in anger is a completely different beast than a peer saying it in awe. And neither emotionally charged statement has anything to do with fever or vomiting. Unless you understand the emotional context of any given exchange, you can’t understand the meaning.

Kids with autism are often thought of as literal-minded in part because they struggle with the emotional aspect of receptive communication. It also affects their ability to accurately assess a situation and make a socially appropriate response. So teaching empathy is vital to improving receptive and expressive communication on many levels. Teaching emotion identification is the first step of that process.

Lesson Examples

Lessons on emotion in VizZle run the gamut from helping students identify emotions (both their own and others’) to helping them cope with those emotions, and everything in between. To search using the subject drop down menu, choose Speech / Pragmatics / Emotional States, or run a keyword search for “emotions” in general, or for the specific emotion you are working on (e.g., “anger”), or for specific related topics (e.g. “body language”).

Lower Level Lessons

Discrimination: Emotions
VizZle Lesson ID Number: 14241
Photo image w/text label TO identical photo image w/text label of emotions, field of 3 choices, 4 pairs

VizZle Lesson ID Number: 6784
Images and short text sentence w/audio of emotions, with popups w/audio and video to reinforce learning and ellicit discussion, 12 pages.

Generalization: Angry
VizZle Lesson ID Number: 15771
Text directive (i.e., “Find Angry”) TO photo image of angry people, field of 3 choices with set distractors, 11 pairs

Higher Level Lessons

VizZle Lesson ID Number: 36560
Images and text, with audio and video examples, about how people express emotion with body language, voice pitch and tone, and facial expression, 24 pages with numerous popups and quizzes

First Reaction
VizZle Lesson ID Number: 9113
Each tile has an image and a popup with situation bound to elicit a strong emotion (e.g. “Your classmate rips your paper. How do you feel?), to prompt discussion about controlling emotions and strategizing an appropriate first reaction, 19 tiles, number spinner

I Statements
VizZle Lesson ID Number: 36030
Text statement of a hypothetical problem or situation (e.g., “Your friend said he’d hang out with you at your house this weekend but he never showed up.”) With a series of text fill in the blank statements (i.e., “I feel ___ when you ___, because___. What I want is ___.) to help analyze and express feelings and needs on the facing page, 35 pages


Many thanks to Melissa Baker, MS CCC-SLP, Speech Therapy Department Supervisor at the Monarch Center for Autism, for agreeing to review and share her input on this month’s series of posts. Any errors or incorrect statements are purely my own and in no way a reflection on her expertise!


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