Many teens with autism struggle with nonverbal communication skills. They are often more in touch with describing physical sensations of emotions than identifying their thoughts. As physical experiences of emotions and emotional intelligence are unique for many people, many autistic teens turn to creative ways of conceptualizing their experiences to help them communicate their emotions. 

Emotional Intelligence in Autistic Teens

One of the defining features of the autism spectrum is impairment in interpersonal relating and communication. Due to sensory sensitivity, they may be hyperaware of their own emotions, but struggle to pick up on the emotions of others and understand them. They may find it hard to define emotions and differentiate between similar emotions, which makes emotional intelligence in autistic teens challenging. As a result, they often don’t learn how to cope with these emotions when they arise, which can lead to emotional meltdowns or acting out, even when they can’t identify what was going on for them. 
Some social struggles they may face include:

  • Difficulty communicating with others
  • Processing and integrating information from the environment
  • Establishing and maintaining reciprocal social relationships
  • Taking other people’s perspectives 
  • Inferring the interests of others
  • Transitioning to new learning environments

How does Autism affect communication?


  • Narrow interests and exceptional abilities. Many teens with autism struggle to carry on two-way conversations, although they may be able to deliver in-depth monologues about a topic that holds their interest. Their obsession with special interests often gives them the nicknames “little professors.”  
  • Repetitive or rigid language. They may only be engaged when talking about their special interests, often repeating the same facts or ideas. Some children struggle with echolalia, where they repeat words they have just heard, or rigidly follow social scripts, even in inappropriate settings.
  • Uneven language development. They may develop skills in one area very quickly, especially around a particular topic of interest. Not all language skills are underdeveloped. One common problem is that they may be able to read, but struggle with reading comprehension. 
  • Poor nonverbal conversation skills. Teens with autism often struggle with reading facial expressions, maintaining eye contact, and using gestures when talking, which can make it difficult for them to make their thoughts, feelings, and needs known. 


How Can Autistic Teens Learn How to Talk About Emotions?

In a recent study, published by the Society for Consumer Psychology, researchers suggest that thinking about emotions as people can help people understand and accept their emotions. The investigators tested their hypothesis by asking participants to write about a time when they felt very sad, such as after the loss of someone close to them. Then one group wrote about who sadness would be if it came to life as a person, while the second group wrote about what sadness would be like in terms of the emotional and affective impacts. Finally, both groups rated their levels of sadness on a scale of one to seven, and the results revealed that participants reported lower levels of sadness after they had written about the emotion as a person.
While teens with autism find it difficult to understand their personal emotions, exercises like this help them think about emotions more objectively, as something outside of themselves. Using this strategy, they are less likely to internalize that negative emotions are a reflection of something negative about themselves. 

Some alternative strategies to help teens with autism communicate emotions include:


  • Art Therapy. This is a great alternative for teens who don’t know how to or don’t like talking about their emotions. Teens with autism tend to learn best using visual supports rather than auditory supports. Art therapy gives them the opportunity to express emotional themes and share their experiences with others. 
  • Media. TV programs and movies can be helpful in role modeling how to communicate emotions and how to cope with them. Facial expressions may be harder to read from a screen, but this can help teens practice determining what emotions characters may be feeling in different scenarios. 
  • Recreation Activities. This experiential approach takes away some of the pressure of sharing experiences in a group therapy setting. Teens are challenged to collaborate with others, problem-solve, and talk about their emotions with others while having fun!  
  • Social involvement. One of the best ways for your teen to learn is by putting them in social situation to practice their skills in. Look into resources in the community where your teen can get involved with other teens on the spectrum, share experiences and make friends. Gauge what they are comfortable with and help them seek out these sources.



Discover Seven Stars can help

Seven Stars is a residential treatment program for young men and women ages 13-17 struggling with neurodevelopmental issues such as autism and ADHD. The program provides acute care stabilization, residential treatment, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, skill-building, and positive psychology. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, self-awareness, and personal management. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control. We can help your family today!
Contact us at 844-601-1167.

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