How To Teach Empathy To Kids With Autism

How To Teach Empathy To Kids With Autism

Did you know... 50% of pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have difficulties with empathy?

(To put that number into perspective, it only affects 10% of the general population.)

As a result of these difficulties, your pupils with ASD may:

  • Seem uncaring when their friends are hurt and don't react appropriately
  • Misread social situations, leading to arguments with their peers
  • Come across as uncaring or selfish

Whilst autism definitely creates barriers to empathetic behaviour, there are some effective teaching techniques we can use to help children who have this condition.

And in a moment, I'm going to share 5 of those strategies with you.

Using the strategies will help our pupils enjoy better social interaction and emotional intelligence (and reduce behaviour incidents sparked by our student misreading their peers).

But first... can you answer the following question, which looks deceptively simple...?

What is empathy?

What we mean by empathy is actually multi-layered.

That's because there's more than one type of empathy - and in general conversation, we tend to lump them all together into the one term.

Here are the 3 types of empathy.

Emotional empathy

This is where you literally feel the emotions that another person is experiencing.

So if you see someone experiencing sadness, you start to feel sad as well.  This ability helps us form social connections and behave sympathetically towards our peers.

Emotional empathy is what most of think of when we hear the word 'empathy'.

(You may also hear this referred to as affective empathy.)

Cognitive empathy

This is being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine what they are thinking.

It's being able to see something from someone else's point of view or understand why they've behaved in a certain way.

It also helps us predict how people are likely to behave in a given situation.

Cognitive empathy is essential for teamwork.  It helps us take account of other people's perspectives and work towards 'win-win' outcomes.

Compassionate empathy

Compassionate empathy motivates us to help another person resolve their problem.

It's where we move from feeling and understanding another person's pain to taking action to support them.

When we do this, we develop deeper social bonds with those around us.

Most often, our friends don't just want us to understand their pain.  They want us to support them in some way.

That's where compassionate empathy comes in.

How they fit together:

Imagine we see one of our close friends crying.

  • Emotional empathy leads us to feel their sadness for ourselves
  • Cognitive empathy helps us understand why our friend is feeling sad
  • Compassionate empathy drives us to take action to do something about it

If we want to support our pupils with ASD, we'll need strategies to support each of these layers of empathy.

Isn't empathy something you're born with?


As babies, we aren't born knowing how to read facial expressions.  We don't have any innate social skills.  And we can't recognise emotions in other people.

It's only at 6 months that most children start reading their parents' emotions and reactions.

And it's not until a child reaches 18-24 months that they start to develop cognitive empathy.  The ability to understand that someone may think differently to the way they do.

Then, as young children, they'll start to read social cues, develop empathy skills and learn about social interaction.

And this is a process that will continue into adolescence.

How does autism affect the development of empathy?

Autism provides barriers to the development of these skills.

The first thing to recognise is that every child's autism will affect them differently.

That said, whilst many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder develop emotional empathy, they don't go on to:

  • Read more complex social cues
  • Understand social rules and expectations
  • Act on those feelings and cues

These delays can often be observed when the child is still a toddler.

The good news is that there are strategies we can use use to help pupils with autism behave with greater empathy.

In fact, in this study, researchers used some effective teaching techniques that not only had a positive effect...

... that effect was also rapid.

What teaching strategies help children with autism learn empathy?

Here's 5 simple strategies that can help pupils with ASD act with greater empathy.

1. Use mirrors and photographs to label emotions

This helps pupils learn a wider emotional vocabulary and recognise emotions in other people.

This is an important step, because we can use emotional empathy as a cue for another behaviour.

2. Use body maps

Once a child has identified an emotion, get them to identify the physical sensations that go with it on a body map.

This is an essential skill for relating physical sensations to emotions in the body.

Once they can do this, work on identifying where another person might experience sadness, anger etc.

This will help them understand the sensations that other people are feeling.

3. Rehearse drama activities

Start with the adult acting as a role model for showing concern for other people.

The next step is acting jointly with the student to model responding to another child's needs.  Then move towards your student acting by themselves in situations that call for empathy or sympathy.

Research shows that puppets and video modelling are also effective for exploring social situations and exploring emotional states.

4. Use Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations

Carol Gray developed social stories to help pupils with autism understand social behaviour.

These are short stories written in a very specific way that makes social expectations clear.

Reviewing and talking about social stories (and comic strip conversations) can help pupils behave with more empathy and improve their social communication skills.

5. Identifying triggers and scripts

Now find a specific trigger (i.e. "My friend has fallen over and is feeling pain") and practise a script to use in that situation (i.e. "Walk over and ask if they're okay").

Your script should include:

  • The appropriate words to say.
  • The right body language to use (including facial expressions).
  • The specific tone of voice to use.

Now rehearse this script on a regular basis with your student.

Use immediate rewards and praise when your student uses the right script at the right time.

This will reinforce the positive behaviour in future.

Key takeaways

Whilst we cannot teach our students with autism to feel something they don't, we can teach them how to:

  • Recognise emotions and certain social situations
  • Give an appropriate response

These are skills we need to teach and rehearse repeatedly, over time.

When we get this right, it helps our pupils develop better social relationships...

...and this will lead to higher levels of confidence and success!

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