Teaching Empathy

I had the opportunity yesterday to watch a video by Temple Grandin. She began by discussing her process of learning, which involved being taught each individual skill, from emotional response to academic instruction. I have often made the same comment about how Ryan learns. This has been a challenge, especially when it comes to emotional learning and the issues Ryan experiences with generalization.

Over the yearsIMG_3683, I’ve come to understand that this is a common struggle for many children and adults with autism. Ryan’s life is certainly Rule-Driven; he wants to desperately follow the rules, but when unanticipated situations occur he becomes anxious, as does not know how to respond. This is especially true in situations that require an emotional response. Empathy is one of those responses that I have worked very diligently to teach Ryan. Some would suggest a lack of interest or concern for others is a characteristic of children with autism. I would suggest that this is an issue with generalization and not the lack of empathy. In other words, Ryan and some with autism struggle to apply lessons of kindness and empathy to all situations, in all locations. Simply put, Ryan needs rules for each and every situation.

So, how did I teach empathy? Of course, it’s not an exact science but here are some tips that I followed:

  • I helped Ryan understand that when he was unhappy, worried, sad, or frustrated he needed to voice those emotions to us so that we could help him find a solution. The thinking here was that by recognizing his own emotions, he may be better able to recognize emotions in others.
  • Throughout the day, I would point out situations that call for empathy. In doing this, he was able to model my behavior and practice the skill himself. This was really helpful because we know that to truly learn a skill it takes practice, practice, practice!
  • Role-playing was especially useful. As an event occurred, we would talk about how a person in a given situation (say, for example, the victim of an earthquake) might feel and act.
  • We frequently practiced recognizing and making facial expressions that imitated certain emotions, such a drawing a sad face or making a happy face in the mirror. This is still an activity Ryan practices at times. He likes to say to me, “Show me your angry face when you tell me that you can’t go out to lunch because of your behavior.”

Learning empathy is never-ending lesson, but I am really pleased how far Ryan has come. Are there any techniques you have used that you’ve found successful? Please share below!

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