Activities to Teach Empathy to Students with Asperger's

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning about empathy can be very challenging for all children, but is especially difficult for those on the autistic spectrum. This lesson offers some concrete activities you can use to teach empathy to students with Asperger's.

Teaching Students with Asperger's

If you work with students who have Asperger's syndrome or other disorders on the autistic spectrum, then you know that learning social and emotional skills is one of their most important tasks.

Part of Asperger's is often an intrinsic struggle with understanding social and emotional cues, cluing into what others might be experiencing emotionally, and finding language to express their emotions.

Therefore, one of the things that can be really hard for students with Asperger's is experiencing and expressing empathy. After all, empathy means understanding and relating to what another person is feeling.

Though you cannot force your students with Asperger's to become more empathic, you can do strong teaching that allows them to develop strategies for empathy. The activities in this lesson appeal to different modalities while teaching empathy to students with Asperger's.

Visual Activities

The activities in this section are well suited to students with Asperger's who like to learn through visual cues and graphic organizers.

Reading Pictures

Students can work independently or with partners for this activity. If your student really struggles with this sort of task, then you can work with them one on one.

Begin by looking at a photograph of a person making a particular facial expression. Ask your student to mirror, or imitate, the facial expression. Then, ask them to answer these questions:

  • What do you think that person is feeling?
  • What is a time that you felt that way?
  • What could you say to a person who was feeling that way?

Once your students have tried this with a few pictures, you can build it into their daily routines as a warm-up exercise.

Sorting Images

This is another activity that students can work on with an adult or with a peer partner. Students should have a set of ten to fifteen different pictures that show people in different situations.

Ask them to sort the images into feelings categories that make sense to them. For example, they might sort them into good and bad feelings, strong and weak feelings, happiness and sadness, etc.

Once students have completed the sorting, ask them to make a chart showing the categories they came up with. In each column of the chart, they should draw a picture or diagram representing what they could do for or with someone who was feeling that way.

For instance, if a friend is feeling happy, you might smile back at them. If a sibling is feeling angry, you might ask them if they needed a hug.

Tactile Activities

Here, you will find activities that let students develop empathy while working with their hands and bodies.

Act It Out

Role-playing can be a really meaningful way for students with Asperger's to work on empathy. For this activity, students should work in small groups, potentially alongside typically developing peers.

Give each group a role-play scenario that is realistic in the context of your school. For instance, a person is sad because they were left out of a game at recess, or a person is embarrassed because the teacher scolded them.

Instruct the students to use their bodies to act out the scenarios and include a possible empathic response to the problem.

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