(Note: This is part of a series about helping children with Aspergers manage emotion appropriately. Please read Emotional Management for Children with Aspergers: Part I for more information about this important topic.)
People often think that Aspergers Syndrome and other forms of autism prevent children from developing empathy. This is untrue, and this mistaken belief can hurt the Aspergers community and its allies; people mistakenly think that people with Aspergers are violent or uncaring because of a lack of empathy.
What is true is that people with Aspergers sometimes have a hard time seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Thus, a child (or adult) with Aspergers might understand that someone is sad or angry and feel bad that the person is in pain but not necessarily understand why.
As the parent of a child with Aspergers, one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is the ability to look at things from other people’s point of view. This ability may not be natural to children with Aspergers, but it certainly can be taught. Here’s how.
Relate Experiences to Your Child’s Point of View
The most basic skill you want to teach your children is to look at experiences from the other person’s point of view. It may seem paradoxical, but the best way to do this is to relate experiences to your child’s point of view. Since many children with Aspergers initially cannot switch perspectives, you can begin teaching them to do so by reminding them of times when they felt the same way.
For example, suppose you want to teach your child not to grab toys out of other children’s hands. Your child may think this rule is silly because “why can’t they play with something else if I take their toy?” If your child has a favorite toy, book or stuffed animal that he or she cannot bear to part with, you can use those feelings to help your child understand. (“Remember that time when you lost your bear and you were so sad? When you take Jimmy’s toys he feels the same way about losing them.”)
Use Visual Aids as Much as Possible
Most people with autism are visual learners. If you can show your child visually how other people feel in particular situations, it can help him or her develop the ability to take other people’s perspectives.
There are many worksheets available online to help children with Aspergers. You may want to check out the worksheets at Teaching Ideas for Perspective Taking. These worksheets allow you and your chid to discuss what people might be feeling and why in various situations.
In addition to using worksheets, it may be helpful to watch television or movies with your child. Pause the show at certain points and ask your child what the characters are thinking and feeling and why they might be feeling that way. This can really help teach your child about empathy.
Verbalize Your Own Empathy
Children with Aspergers learn well by seeing what others do. So slow down and demonstrate your own ability to take other people’s perspectives. For example, if you see that your child is upset, you can say aloud, “I can see you are upset because you are crying. I wonder what’s upsetting you. Oh, I know. Many children get upset when they fall down. Is that what happened to you?” You can also verbalize taking the perspective of others around your child and even the perspective of strangers.
Above all, ignore the rhetoric that children with Aspergers can’t experience empathy. Have every confidence that your child can and will learn to relate empathetically to others. Your child already has the basic building blocks of empathy; now you just need to help him or her learn the skills that will help take recognition of others’ feelings to the next level.
I offer one-on-one and group coaching sessions to parents of children with Aspergers to help them learn how to teach their children skills that neurotypical people often take for granted. Please contact me for more information or to set up an appointment.