The impact of emotional abilities on the school performance of adolescents with and without autism

This study was done to better understand whether emotional abilities, such as the ability to control or understand your own emotions, are a successful predictor of the school performance of adolescents with and without autism.

The study is a bachelor thesis done by student Lisa Morais Dos Reis of the University of Luxembourg, supervised by Dr. Andreia Costa and M.Sc. Maïte Franco from the Institute for Health and Behaviour of the Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences.


When we look at the school success of young autistic people, we see many different results. Some of the adolescents perform just as well as expected or even better, given their IQ. Others, on the other hand, perform worse than expected. The difference in the results can be explained by external factors, such as the students’ well-being in class, or internal factors, such as students’ motivation aspects. Another internal factor is a person’s emotional ability, or the skill to understand and control own emotions and the emotion of others. This is especially important in a school context, as emotional ability allows children to concentrate better on the tasks in front of them. It also helps adolescents to develop friendships with other peers and to stay positive in difficult situations. Many autistic children and adolescents have difficulties distinguishing and understanding other people’s emotions. In fact, alexithymia, a personality trait that makes it difficult for a person to be aware, describe, and understand emotions in themselves and in others, is more common among people with autism than among neurotypical people.

So far, research with neurotypical students shows that emotional ability plays an important role in determining how well a student does in school. Researchers believe that emotional abilities influence a person’s ability to think and learn, which in turn influences success at school. For example, the emotional ability of a person can determine his or her problem-solving skills when found in a stressful situation at school. A good emotional ability can allow the person to remain calm and levelheaded and find a successful solution. The emotional ability is also closely linked to a person’s social skills and the ability to interact with others. A good relationship with classmates is especially important in a school context.

Given the important role that emotional ability plays in school performance, we could expect that, because autistic adolescents have difficulties in different areas of emotional ability, it could explain some of their difficulties in school. However, such a link as not been studied in autistic adolescents. We want to analyze with our study, what relationship exists between emotion abilities and academic performance for adolescents with and without autism. Based on the existing literature, we expect that autistic adolescents will have more emotional difficulties than neurotypical adolescents. Furthermore, we expect that adolescents who have more emotional difficulties will perform worse in school than adolescents with less emotional difficulties.


An online study was conducted in which 39 parents reported about their adolescent children, 29 were parents of an autistic adolescent and 10 of an adolescent without a psychological diagnosis. Among the adolescents, 25 were boys and 14 were girls aged between ten and 19 years old. The adolescents attended a secondary school either in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, or Switzerland. The questionnaire asked for demographic details about the adolescents, such as their nationality, age, and their parents’ occupation, as well as their school achievements. and emotional abilities. In addition, we asked about autistic traits, emotion regulation difficulties, and alexithymia traits in adolescents.


As expected, we found that autistic adolescents had more emotion regulation difficulties as well as more emotional awareness difficulties (alexithymia) than adolescents without autism. Regarding school performance, autistic adolescents performed as well as non-autistic adolescents. However, adolescents with more alexithymia had worse school results than those with less alexithymia.


In conclusion, our study showed that, in general autistic adolescents without intellectual disability, seem to do as well in school as non-autistic adolescents. However, autistic adolescents had more emotional difficulties than non-autistic adolescents and these emotional difficulties, particularly difficulties with emotional awareness (alexithymia) were important in determining the school success of adolescents.

Since this is one of the first studies to assess how emotional ability is related to the school success of autistic adolescents, more research needs to be done to confirm our preliminary results. However, based on our results, there seems to be indications that improving autistic children’s emotional awareness could lead to overall emotional well-being improvements and that this could lead to improvements in school success too.


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