By guest blogger Heather Riggleman
Check almost any list of common characteristics for individuals on the Autism Spectrum and you will find “difficulty reading facial expressions and body language” among the traits listed. As the mother of a child with Aspergers, I have looked for ways to address these deficits with my daughter, Cheyenne. I have searched for ways to convey the meaning of facial expressions to her. And I have found success in the strangest of places—comic books!
How important is it to teach a child to read facial expressions? Very important! According to Cheyenne’s occupational therapist, the human face can create up to 3,000 facial expressions. A study done by Albert Mehrabian at UCLA showed that only 7% of our emotional meaning is conveyed by the words we speak. That means 93% is communicated through nonverbal cues—55% by facial expression, body language and gestures and 38% by vocal quality.
On any given day, my daughter Cheyenne will come home from middle school with a story, asking whether or not her teachers were angry, upset or frustrated with her. I pepper her with questions and then we pull out her comic books looking for the faces her teachers made. Once she points them out, we reenact the moment. This allows Cheyenne to practice, study and recognize the emotion expressed, the tone of voice and how to respond to it in the future.
Fortunately, there are many ways to help children with Asperger’s to learn to identify facial expressions. One way is to get help from other people. Cheyenne’s classmates often help her identify their emotions. There are also great apps that can help kids match faces with emotions. And of course there is Cheyenne’s favorite—reading comics. Yes, reading comics! Comic books have glossy pages, colorful characters and exaggerated emotions. They, make studying faces fun and engaging! Comic books are a great way to teach your student or child the basics of human emotion. A great way to show them what it means to be happy, sad, angry, irritated while giving them a neutral face as a baseline to compare those emotions to. They’re a fabulous tool because comic books tend to over exaggerate the emotions conveyed.
Here are 5 great ways to use comic books to teach an Aspie child all about emotions:
- Find a Series. Find a series that your child enjoys reading. If she’s excited about the material, she’ll be more interested in referencing the comic books. Have her read it from cover to cover so she will gain an understanding of the storyline and the social situations the characters are facing.
- Break it Down. Once your student knows the storyline, break down the facial expressions in the story. Start with the basic ones like happy, sad, mad. For example, the eyes of a person convey many emotions, just by looking at the eyes, what are those eyes saying? Is that person sad, flirtatious, sarcastic?
- Consider the use of body language. Comic characters are drawn to show the emotions hidden beneath the words. Their body language expresses much more than their words often do. A wrinkling at the edges (with the eyes held at half mast) shows a man might not mean what he’s saying.
- Act it Out. Once your student has been able to identify the emotions conveyed in a comic segment, have her act them out in front of a mirror. This will help her see how the body language and facial expression looks on her. It will also give her a chance to perfect them and use them in social situations. Another option it to have your child or student act out the scene with another person, engaging her in social interaction. This will also help her figure out how to moderate her emotions—when she is showing too much emotion or too little.
- Grow the List. Once a child has the baseline (mad, happy, sad etc.) covered, consider adding emotions like bored, disgusted, embarrassed, confused, annoyed, jealous, sorry etc. to your child’s repertoire. Begin challenging her to identify situations in which these emotions might occur.
- Visual Recall. Once your student or child has had the opportunity to read the comic books, challenge her with a visual recall lesson. Ask her questions about the plot and encourage her to mimic the facial expression that corresponds with the moment and emotion. My guess is you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much she’s learned from her favorite comic book!