Social-Emotional Learning and Autism - Autism Awareness
Social-Emotional Learning and Autism

Social-Emotional Learning and Autism

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing and using social and emotional skills. SEL skills are necessary to understand and manage emotions, set goals, make decisions, cooperate, resolve conflicts, feel empathy for others, solve problems, and work on a team (just to name a few). Children start to learn these skills from the time they are babies and continue to build them into adulthood.

There are 5 key areas that make up SEL skills. They are:

  1. Self-awareness – identifying emotions, recognizing strengths and needs, developing a growth mindset
  2. Self-management – managing emotions, controlling impulses, setting goals
  3. Social awareness – seeing things from other people’s perspective, showing empathy, appreciating diversity
  4. Relationship skills – communication, cooperation, conflict resolution
  5. Responsible decision-making – thinking about the consequences of personal behavior and how it affects oneself and others

Autistic people often struggle with recognizing and regulating emotions. This can make having social awareness or making responsible decisions difficult to do. Autistic people may not be able to describe how they are feeling or express their feelings, but this doesn’t mean they don’t feel things. This difficulty identifying feelings – or more specifically identifying and describing one’s emotions – is called alexithymia. Interoception, the 8th sense, is the underlying neurobiological cause or foundation of this experience of alexithymia.

The first step in developing SEL skills starts with developing interoceptive awareness, but how do we do that?

Developing Interoceptive Awareness

Developing interoceptive awareness starts with tuning into the body and the signals it sends as interoceptive awareness comes from our internal organs and skin. There are 5 stages to teaching interoceptive awareness which are:

1. Noticing – The person needs to notice that the sensation is happening. They may not know what it means or what the word is for it, but they have noticed that something has happened; something is different. Ex. sweaty palms, rapid breathing, growly stomach

2. Naming – The person learns how to describe what they’ve noticed. This includes naming the sensation and where it is happening. Ex. “My chest is rising and breathing is becoming harder.”

3. Linking Feelings – The person attaches a feeling to the interoceptive sensation. Sometimes there may not be a specific feeling. Ex. The rising chest and harder breathing may mean anxiety.

4. Understanding the Impact – This will require thinking, planning and reflecting. It may be helpful to keep a journal to understand the impact of actions. For example, if a person is tired and they don’t go to bed, they may get a headache or get upset more easily.

5. Managing – This is about taking action to address the need and understanding what makes the body feel good or comfortable. Ex. The rising chest and difficulty breathing signals anxiety. Engaging in some exercise such a walk or jumping on a mini trampoline may help reduce those feelings.

Find interoceptive activities to create body awareness that focus on creating and noticing a change in some aspect of one’s internal self such as muscular system, breathing, temperature, pulse or touch.

Occupation therapist Kelly Mahler is doing excellent work in the area of interoception and self-regulation. Here are some of her informal strategies for caregivers and support staff to teach the initial stages of noticing and naming.

Body Talk – Label the way your body feels during activities. Ex. I am sweating because I am hot after running. My stomach is no longer growling after I ate that sandwich.

Build Body Curiosity – Teach the person to notice how their body feels during activities. Ex. How does this make your head feel? Your hands? Your legs?

Teach that Body Signals are Clues to Emotions – Ex. You can’t sit still and feel jumpy – you may be worried about something. You have no appetite and your palms are sweaty – you might be anxious.

Using a Body Check Chart

The body check chart is an outline of a person’s body. You can make a body check chart by lying down on a long piece of paper and have someone draw the outline of the body. Now you have the outline of a person’s own body, which can be used for interoception activities.

There are some good body awareness activities that can be used in relation to the body check chart (from Raising an Extraordinary Person):

  1. Point to different body parts on a child’s chart and have them wiggle that body part on their actual body. This shows you that the child understands their chart and how it is connected to their body.
  2. Play a game of Simon Says using the chart. Use actions like clench your fists, breath really hard, touch your heart, etc. Ask them to point to the body parts on the chart they used for each action.
  3. Turn their chart into a self-portrait, getting them to draw all of their body parts on their chart so it’s not just an outline. If they can spell, they may label the parts as well, if not pictures are fine.
  4. Point to a body part on their body check chart and ask them how it feels right now. For example, eyes: they could be itchy, sleepy, awake, dry, watery, etc.

These ideas will increase a person’s understanding of their body and the signals it sends to them. This is the foundation to being able to interpret those internal signals and then know what to do in order to be more comfortable and content. Building interoceptive awareness will support the development of better emotional regulation and coping strategies. A regulated person will be less stressed and anxious.

Putting SEL Strategies into Everyday Activities

While developing and building those interoceptive skills, we can also practice SEL skills during everyday activities. SLP Elizabeth Sautter does superb work in this area. Her website Make Social Emotional Learning Stick has lots of great ideas how to incorporate SEL learning into everyday routines and activities. Here are some of Elizabeth’s SEL infusion strategies:

  1. Teachable Moments – These are natural opportunities for insight, practice and participation. Life is full of these moments. My autistic daughter and I do a number of activities throughout the week such as bake, play board or Wii games to teach being a good sport, and watch movies together that we freeze and talk about the action or character motivation.
  2. Modeling – We can be role models during play and teachable moments. I point out my mistakes to my children all the time and show them how I can make it better.
  3. Social Priming – This is going through what will happen in a social situation before it happens. Who will be there? Where are we going? How long will it last? What am I supposed to so when I am there? Go through the hidden curriculum too.  I did this in June before taking my children to their first baby shower. We went through everything that was going to happen because this was a little bit different than going to a birthday party.
  4. Social Debriefing – Talk about what happened afterwards. I usually do this in the car once we leave the activity while it’s fresh in everyone’s minds.
  5. Prompting – Giving support, cues or assistance. This could be done through the use of visual supports, Social Stories, verbal prompts, or social narratives.

If you want more ideas on how to put SEL strategies into everyday life, have a look at Elizabeth Sautter’s book on this subject – Make Social Emotional Learning Stick.

Teaching social-emotional learning is a process that begins with recognizing and understanding emotions within one’s self. By starting with interoceptive awareness, you’ll create the foundation on which to foster those 5 keys areas that make up SEL skills. This is a long, on-going process, but the journey can be both fun and interesting as we learn more about ourselves and how we feel.




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  1. Stephen Corley says:

    I want to join in creating autism awareness program and am more interested in studying more on social and emotional learning

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