The ability to decode facial expressions is important in any student's quest to navigate this highly social world. While many people learn the skills necessary to read people's emotions through trial and error during childhood, students with Autism and other disabilities often need explicit instruction to become successful in it. Acquiring this skill will not only help a student to understand others more accurately, but also to communicate his or her own feelings and needs more effectively. Using and interpreting other nuances, like tone of voice, physical proximity, stance, and gestures are also important factors in effective communication, and should be addressed explicitly when working with students with Autism.
One challenge with students with Autism is often that they lack the innate desire to seek out social interaction. For this reason, teaching any social skills should be done in a safe environment, and for a reasonable amount of time for the student. Consider the immediate needs of the student when determining what skills are most important for him or her to learn. Does the student's big brother often use sarcasm, often frustrating the student? Then that skill would take priority over others.
The most common method of teaching students to read facial cues, is flashcards. Educators and parents can purchase them through specialty stores, catalogs, or online. Super Duper Publications produces a deck of emotions cards that you can purchase on their website. Creating your own emotions cards can be very effective as well. Simply take pictures of family members, friends, and other familiar people making various faces and laminate them. Happy, sad, angry, scared and other basic emotions are good starting points. Later, feelings like guilt, surprise, and tired can be added. Consider the student's current level of functioning and understanding, as well as aspects like personality and cultural factors when choosing the cards to make. There are several activities you can do with the cards, beginning with simply identifying the emotions. Later, the teacher can tell short stories or scenarios and the student can choose the card that would demonstrate how each character feels. If the student is capable, he or she can begin creating scenarios about a specific card, chosen by the teacher.
Beyond simply recognizing basic facial expressions, the subtleties of social interaction are important in decoding real life situations. Concepts like sarcasm, lying, and joking do not have hard and fast rules. Creating lists of clues to look for may be helpful for some students. Others may benefit from having pictures of many different faces emitting the emotion. Expressing the importance of the context of the facial expression will also help students to decode more effectively. Other non-verbal cues, like eye contact and physical proximity often require specific parameters when the student is first learning about them. Providing reference points for physical proximity such as, an arm's length, hugging distance, and any others applicable to the student are helpful. Short flow charts may be useful during role-playing and storytelling activities. At the top, the student must decide if the person is feeling "good" or "bad." The next levels have the student decide if the person is making eye contact, have tears in his or her eyes, has clenched fists, and any other applicable physical clues. The next levels can contain clues about tone of voice, volume, and speed of speech. Creating concrete rules for as many abstract concepts as possible is beneficial to students learning to decode social cues.