Empathy is a crucial social skill that is increasingly necessary for children today. It’s a key skill that helps us maintain meaningful relationships—both personal and professional. Empathy allows us to understand what someone else is feeling and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This can be a difficult concept for children with autism to understand; however, there are ways to help children with autism develop empathy.
Attaching Empathy to Certain Behaviors
While it’s often difficult to picture what empathy looks like, certain behaviors demonstrate this ability which your child can use as learning cues. It’s easier to teach your child with autism to learn empathy when you assign specific behaviors to the concept. These behaviors can include the following:
- Using specific verbal cues, such as, “I’m sorry you are going through that,” or “Are you okay?” or “What can I do to help?”
- Applying the appropriate tone
- Displaying appropriate expressions, such as not smiling or laughing when someone else is crying
Using Positive Reinforcement
If you notice your child displaying empathy, make sure that you praise them for it. Verbally acknowledge their actions and use specific language, such as “I really liked how you shared your favorite snack with your little sister. How kind of you!” You may also offer small rewards while praising this behavior.
Role-Playing With Your Child
On top of talking to your child about appropriate behaviors, role-playing with your child can be a great way to model empathy. Create situations in which an empathetic response is appropriate. Play with their favorite doll and make it fall. Describe how the toy might feel (sad, hurt, etc.), and then describe how another toy comes to show empathy. Eventually, work toward taking turns with your child in each role, between needing empathy and displaying it to develop those skills.
Socialization and Coaching
Although it doesn’t always come easily, socialization is key for a child with autism. Arranging social interactions is one of the most effective ways to help children with autism learn empathy. Your child may sometimes struggle during the socialization process. Still, by modeling and coaching through the behaviors that you want to see them exhibiting, you can help them understand and learn how to communicate effectively with others.
You can coach your child as they learn the cause-and-effect of their behaviors on other people. By talking them through their challenges and successes, you can help them learn to consciously make it a habit to consider and respond to the feelings of those around them.