What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a crucial aspect of development that involves understanding and managing emotions, setting and achieving positive goals, feeling and showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, and making responsible decisions. For individuals with autism, mastering these skills can be challenging due to the nature of their condition, which often affects communication, social interaction, and emotional regulation. This guide, crafted from the perspective of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), aims to simplify the concept of SEL for parents and provide practical strategies for supporting their children with autism.

SEL encompasses five key areas:

  1. Self-awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions, values, and strengths.
  2. Self-management: Regulating emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations.
  3. Social awareness: Showing understanding and empathy for others.
  4. Relationship skills: Establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships.
  5. Responsible decision-making: Making constructive choices about personal and social behavior.

For children with autism, these areas represent both challenges and opportunities for growth. Developing SEL skills can significantly impact their ability to navigate social situations, form relationships, and lead fulfilling lives.

Developing Interoceptive Awareness

Interoceptive awareness is the ability to recognize and understand the signals our bodies send us from our internal organs and skin. This awareness is crucial for individuals with autism as it helps them connect bodily sensations with emotions, aiding in self-regulation and emotional understanding. Developing interoceptive awareness involves several stages, each building upon the last to foster a deeper connection with one’s physical and emotional state.

The Five Stages of Developing Interoceptive Awareness

  1. Noticing: The foundational step is for the individual to become aware of bodily sensations, acknowledging their presence without necessarily understanding their meaning. For instance, they might observe that their palms are sweaty or that their breathing has quickened, indicating a change or a response to a situation.
  2. Naming: Once a sensation is noticed, the next step is learning to describe it accurately. This involves identifying the sensation (e.g., “My heart is beating fast”) and pinpointing its location in the body. This stage is crucial for developing a vocabulary for bodily experiences.
  3. Linking Feelings: The individual then learns to associate specific bodily sensations with emotions. For example, a fast heartbeat and shallow breathing might be recognized as signs of feeling anxious. This stage is essential for emotional identification and literacy.
  4. Understanding the Impact: This stage involves reflection on how different sensations and the actions taken in response to them affect overall well-being. Keeping a journal can be beneficial for tracking these experiences and outcomes. For example, noting that lack of sleep leads to irritability or headaches can highlight the importance of good sleep hygiene.
  5. Managing: The final stage focuses on taking proactive steps to address the needs signaled by the body. If tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing signify anxiety, engaging in calming activities like walking or using a mini trampoline can alleviate these sensations.

Interoceptive Activities for Body Awareness

Creating body awareness through interoceptive activities involves exercises that highlight changes in the body’s internal state. These activities might focus on altering or noticing changes in muscle tension, breathing patterns, body temperature, or heart rate. Occupational therapist Kelly Mahler offers valuable strategies for caregivers to support individuals in the initial stages of noticing and naming bodily sensations:

  • Body Talk: Encourage open discussions about how the body feels during different activities. For example, explaining, “I’m sweating because it’s hot outside,” or “My stomach feels full after eating lunch,” helps link physical sensations with their causes.
  • Build Body Curiosity: Foster curiosity about bodily sensations during various activities by asking questions like, “How do your feet feel when you run?” or “What do you notice in your hands when you’re drawing?”
  • Teach that Body Signals are Clues to Emotions: Help the individual understand that physical sensations are often indicators of emotional states. For instance, “If you’re finding it hard to sit still and feel restless, it might mean you’re worried about something.”

Using a Body Check Chart

Using a Body Check Chart is an effective strategy for enhancing interoceptive awareness in individuals with autism. This tool helps them connect physical sensations with emotions, fostering a deeper understanding of how their bodies respond to different stimuli and situations. By systematically identifying and recording these sensations and the emotions they correlate with, individuals can better manage their responses to various environmental triggers. Here’s a detailed look at how to use a Body Check Chart, including activity examples that can be incorporated into daily routines.

What is a Body Check Chart?

A Body Check Chart is a visual aid that features a diagram of the human body, often accompanied by spaces or prompts where individuals can note down different sensations they feel and the emotions associated with these sensations. The chart encourages mindfulness of bodily states and helps in recognizing patterns over time.

Implementing the Body Check Chart

Step 1: Introduction to the Chart

Introduce the Body Check Chart to the individual, explaining its purpose in simple terms. For example, “This chart helps us understand how our body feels when we’re happy, sad, or worried by noticing different signs, like if our hands are shaky or our heart feels fast.”

Step 2: Identifying Sensations

Start with guiding the individual to notice and describe physical sensations during various activities. This could be as simple as noting how their body feels:

  • During Physical Activity: After engaging in physical exercise, like running or jumping, use the chart to record sensations such as increased heart rate, sweating, or muscle fatigue. Discuss how these might relate to feelings of excitement or tiredness.
  • While Relaxing: While in a calm state, perhaps during reading or listening to soft music, encourage them to observe and chart sensations like slower breathing, a sense of warmth, or relaxation in the muscles, linking these to feelings of calmness or contentment.

Step 3: Linking to Emotions

Once a sensation is noted, the next step is to associate it with an emotion. This involves asking questions to help the individual reflect on what they’re feeling and why. For instance, “You mentioned your stomach feels tight. Do you feel this way when you’re nervous about something?”

Step 4: Reflecting on the Experience

Encourage regular reflection on the chart entries to identify patterns and triggers. This could involve looking back at the chart at the end of the day or week and discussing what was learned about how different activities or situations affect their body and emotions.

Step 5: Developing Coping Strategies

Use insights gained from the chart to develop personalized strategies for managing uncomfortable sensations or emotions. For example, if noting that tightness in the chest often precedes feelings of anxiety, introduce deep breathing exercises as a coping mechanism to be used when this sensation is first noticed.

Activity Examples

  • Mindful Coloring: Engage in a mindful coloring session and use the Body Check Chart to note any changes in physical sensations or emotions before and after the activity. This can highlight the calming effect of the activity.
  • Sensory Bins: Explore sensory bins filled with different textures and materials. Afterward, document any changes in muscle tension, heart rate, or emotional state, helping to identify textures that are soothing or stimulating.
  • Emotion Role-Play: Through role-play or storytelling, simulate situations that might evoke different emotions. Use the Body Check Chart to record bodily responses to these simulated emotions, enhancing the connection between physical sensations and emotional states.

Top SEL Strategies for Everyday Activities

Implementing SEL strategies into daily routines can help children with autism develop these essential skills in a natural and supportive environment. Here are some top strategies:

  • Modeling and Labeling Emotions: Regularly express and label your own emotions in front of your child. For instance, saying, “I feel disappointed because it’s raining and we can’t go to the park,” models how to identify and express emotions constructively.
  • Social Narratives: Use stories and scenarios to teach social norms and expectations. Social narratives can prepare children for new experiences or help them understand how to navigate challenging social situations.
  • Role-Playing: Engage in role-playing activities to practice social interactions, turn-taking, and empathy. For example, taking turns asking about each other’s day can practice conversational skills.
  • Visual Supports: Create visual aids, like emotion cards or social stories, to help children understand and communicate their feelings and the feelings of others.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Provide positive feedback and reinforcement when your child successfully uses SEL skills. This could be verbal praise, a favorite activity, or a small reward.

Social-emotional learning is a vital component of development for children with autism, offering them the tools needed to understand themselves and navigate the social world more effectively. By incorporating SEL strategies into everyday activities and using tools like the Body Check Chart, parents can support their children in developing these critical skills. With patience, practice, and support, children with autism can achieve significant growth in their social-emotional learning journey.