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Empathy Activities for Students with Autism

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

It can be really difficult for students with autism to learn how to receive and express empathy. This lesson offers activities that will help you teach empathy to these students in lasting and meaningful ways.

Autism and Empathy

If you are a teacher who works with students who have autism, then you know that one of the defining characteristics of this disorder is struggles with forming deep and meaningful emotional connections with others.

In particular, many students with autism do not naturally read social cues and do not readily understand the emotions that they or others are experiencing. This makes it very hard for them to show empathy, which, in turn, can be an impediment to forming strong relationships.

There is no one magical or fast way to teach empathy to students with autism, but there are activities you can use to facilitate development in this realm. The activities in this lesson let you work with different modalities to teach students with autism to be more empathic.

Visual Activities

This section provides activities that rely on visual cues to teach your students more about empathy.

Picture, Feelings, Words

Many students with autism benefit from explicit instruction in reading other people's facial expressions and body language. For this activity, you will want a series of images of people whose faces and body language express fairly clear emotions.

Show your students one picture at a time. Ask them to follow the following protocol:

  • Look at the picture closely.
  • Use your face and body to mirror what you see in the picture.
  • Choose and say, or write, a word that describes the feeling you see in the picture.

Matching Scenes with Feelings

For this activity, you will want a set of pictures that represent people showing empathy to each other. If possible, use photographs of your students.

You might look for images that show people giving each other a hug or a sympathetic smile, people helping each other, or people showing warm body language.

On a matching set of cards, write a brief description of what is happening in each picture. For example, 'Lindy looks sad. Max is giving her a hug to show that he cares.'

Then, have your students work to try to match the scenes with their corresponding descriptions. You can use the pairs they have come up with to lead into a discussion about empathy and what it is all about.

Tactile Activities

Many students with autism benefit from sensory involvement in what they are learning; these activities require the use of hands and bodies.

I Feel, You Feel

Give each student a slab of clay or other sculpting materials to use for this activity. Read students short stories or anecdotes that involve feelings, one at a time. Each time you read a story, ask students to think about what they feel in relation to the character in the story.

Then, have them use their fingers or a toothpick to carve the clay with a facial expression or another image that reflects their emotional response to the person in the story. They are practicing showing empathy each time they do this!

Role Playing Social Stories

You probably already know how effective social stories can be for students with autism. This activity lets your students use their whole bodies as they think about social stories.

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