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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Drawing out Emotion in Autism

The other day I was asked this question:
Do people with autism understand love? How about emotions in general?

And this was my answer:
Yes – I’m actually just in the process of writing a blog post about this topic. It is a common misconception that people with autism lack emotion. In fact, they tend to have very strong emotions that can overwhelm them. Often emotions are not well categorized and sorted, and one of the important things to address in intervention is understanding, sorting , naming of emotions, as well as defining degrees of emotion – this helps the person deal with their own emotional responses (and those of others) in a better way.

Emotions can be hard:
..... especially if: when you feel like this inside .....

.... THIS is the only answer that comes out when someone asks: "How are you?"

Note to all parents, teachers & therapists: PLEASE do not teach a child to automatically answer "I am fine" to this common question (this response is incredibly difficult to un-teach, and results in sick/injured/hurt/distressed people telling you they are just "find")

Think of a time in your life when your emotions overwhelmed you - when events in your life were so "big", so unmanageable, so unfathomable that you were swept away by a tide of emotion that rendered you speechless, thoughtless, disorganized and discombobulated - perhaps to the point that a pathetic word like "sad" or "angry" or "scared" just wouldn't begin to encompass the experience. I really want you to clearly recall this time and state before you read any more .... ready?

This is often what emotion is like for those on the autism spectrum. Not too little feeling, but far too much. With no automatic system kicking in to name and sort and process, every feeling can become overwhelming - a "happy" surprise can lead to a meltdown just as easily as a negative or sad experience.

Emotional education is important, but it's challenging to directly teach a subject that is not usually taught - if you're a "Nypical" (love this term from John Elder Robison), you may think of yourself as very skilled in this area, but it's all automatic processing for you, so you don't actually know how you know what you know (if you know what I mean), and you probably won't be as good at explaining and teaching it as you think.

Drawing is a great way to approach the direct teaching of visual cues that connect to emotion:

Here is a quick overview of the small drawn figures I use to teach body language and facial expression:
With a few simple lines, you can "explain" the visual cues of emotion much more effectively than you can with verbal language (in this instance, a picture really is worth a thousand+ words).

This type of teaching results in a gradual learning process - the skills involved in seeing, processing, integrating and understanding the transitory subtle visual cues that code human emotion are incredibly complex, but they are teachable.

Kevin and Adam are both low verbal adults on the autism spectrum, and they have been learning about people and emotions for many years now. See some of their recent drawings:

Happiness for Mr. Bean is a trip to the condo.

Being "shushed" makes Adam feel a bit sad and uncertain.

Sadness for Kevin is an unexpected closure of a favourite store.

Adam draws the unhappy shock of a boy blown back by a lion's roar.

Raymond (Kevin's brother) is excited about graduating from university.

Loving bond between a seal pair.

Dad shows the universal reaction to computer malfunctions.

Being able to freeze one moment in time, through drawing, allows it to be examined and understood. And recently, the beautifully simple drawing animation programs on the iPad have the extra benefit of letting us put these transient emotional moments in the context of a visual timeline:

Understanding and taming emotions is a critical step in developing self-confidence and self-control ... and art is a powerful way to reach and teach when human emotion is the topic.
Pick up a pen and give it a try!
Video drawn by Adam on the iPad using FlipBoom Cartoon