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Volume 126

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Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…

Asperger’s and Social Skills –
How to Express Sympathy for Others

One challenge kids with Asperger’s and social skills issues have is expressing sympathy or empathy for others’ pain or misfortunes. This can make them seem cold-hearted or uncaring even when they are not.

Showing that you care about others’ mishaps is an important part of relational bonding. How can you teach your child to show their feelings to others?

Asperger’s and Social Skills – Role Play

Take this scenario. John’s brother gets his finger caught in the door and starts crying because it hurts. John might think “Why is he crying? That’s not going to make it hurt any less,” and not say anything to comfort his brother.

You could ask John, “How would you feel if you got your hand stuck in the door and it hurt? Would you want someone to comfort you?”

Sometimes people with Asperger’s learning social skills just need help trying to access the feelings of sympathy and empathy they have for others.

Sometimes other details of the situation might distract them before they can access those feelings – “What was the angle of the door?” “How much blood is there?”

It’s not that the empathy isn’t there, but the analytical Asperger’s mind sometimes needs help re-directing itself to find it, and a reminder to express it, before it becomes routine.

So, in any given situation when you’re out and about in your daily life, and you see someone struggling in any way, ask your child with Asperger’s or high functioning autism, “How would you feel if you were in that situation?”

If they don’t know, then try to prompt them.

“You might feel scared because…”

“You might feel frustrated because…”

If you can, relate it to a similar situation they’ve been in.

You’re helping to teach emotional literacy – how to recognize emotions in others, and how to express your own.

Asperger’s and Social Skills – Explain why Sympathy is Important

A lot of aspects of teaching social skills to kids who have Asperger’s depend on explaining the “whys” in a way that they can understand.

Kids with Asperger’s or high functioning autism need information, hard facts. They need to sort through data to help them come up with a plan of how to act, and why they should act.

Asperger’s and Social Skills – Some Scenarios in which Sympathy is Expected:

Someone dies

Someone is sick

Getting a bad grade on a test and is upset

Being called a derogatory name by a peer

Getting into a fight with their parents, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc

Not getting job or other desired thing

These are obviously just a few of many possible situations that require expressions of sympathy. But many times, kids with Asperger’s or high functioning autism don’t have the social skills to be able to deliver. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Asperger’s and Social Skills – Reasons for Difficulty with Expressing Sympathy:

1. Feels bad, but is not aware they’re supposed to say it

2. Feels bad, but can’t find/articulate the words to say it

3. Having trouble paying attention to the conversation, and didn’t hear what was said

4. Different processing speeds – wasn’t able to process what was said in time

5. Not aware of feelings in that particular moment, needs time to sort out feelings before responding

6. Overwhelmed by feelings, and can’t express them or sort them out

As you can see, there are many reasons for kids with Asperger’s and high functioning autism not to show sympathy at the proper time, but none of them involve not HAVING the empathy in them to feel it.

They either need to be given more time to process their feelings (and other people may need to be warned of this so they don’t get hurt), or they need to be taught when and how it is appropriate to express their feelings.

Asperger’s and Social Skills – an Example:

Classmate 1 -neurotypical- “My dog died yesterday.”

Classmate 2 -neurotypical- “Oh man, that sucks!”

Classmate 3 -neurotypical- “What kind of dog was he? Are you going to get another one?”

Classmate 4 -with Asperger’s- (blank, running through dog pictures in his mind, searching for an experience that matches this one) “Did you know the German Shepherd can run at a speed of 20 miles per…”

After saying this classmate 4 (the one with Asperger’s) receives dirty looks from the others.

A lot of people with Asperger’s have associative thinking. They say whatever the first thing comes into their mind is, and have trouble filtering it until a more appropriate response comes along.

These facts about dogs may eventually lead to, “My cousin had a dog once that he loved, but he died. Everyone was very sad,” – in other words, something of relevance to the conversation.

But after scrolling through all the mental bookmarks in their head for an appropriate conversation topic, it can take some time to get there.

Asperger’s and Social Skills – Give Scripts

Teach your child some basic scripts that they can use in a situation requiring sympathy.

“I am sorry for your loss”

“I am sorry your parents won’t let you go to the dance”

“I am sorry that (tell them to insert what happened or to think about how what happened might make them feel).

Teach when to use them. Explain to them “We need to say these things because they will help the other person to feel better.”

By doing this, you are teaching the person with Asperger’s social skills. Different kids take different amounts of time to catch onto this concept.

Asperger’s and Social Skills – Be Creative

You might make a game out of it. Buy some poster board, draw out a typical board game rubric with spaces to advance in, and get some dice and something to use as markers for the space you’re on.

Think of situations that would require an expression of sympathy, write them out and put them as cards stacked in the corner. Mark certain spots, maybe every 2 or 3, as a spot for cards. Whoever lands on the spot has to answer a question.

To decrease agitation, don’t make advancing dependent on getting it right. Too much competition riding on something can be anxiety-provoking, but just enough can make something interesting and stimulating.

Asperger’s and Social Skills – Catch Them Being Good

A lot of people like to punish negative behavior. In this case, maybe it would be getting mad at a kid who said the wrong thing.

That is not going to accomplish anything, however. Yelling at a sensitive person, and most people with Asperger’s or high functioning autism are sensitive, is going to make them so overwhelmed that they can’t hear a thing you’re saying.

That is not a teachable moment. Their anxiety will increase greatly, because they know they are doing something wrong, but they don’t understand what. They want nothing more than to be away from the yelling, but they won’t understand how to modify their behavior to satisfy you.

So instead, watch them closely and when you do see them expressing sympathy or empathy in an appropriate manner, use that as a teachable moment.

Are they worried about the bird babies in the nest?

Did they express concern over their brother’s cut?

Use those opportunities to praise them for expressing these feelings. “That is so good of you to be worried about your brother/the bird, etc. It makes people feel good when you say things like that to them.” They will get the picture eventually.

If you follow these tips, and be patient, your child will learn how to show sympathy to others in time. Nothing happens overnight, but having a good plan of action in place can really help when teaching about Asperger’s and social skills.

Here are 2 related Newsletters:

And for many great ideas for therapies and treatments of Asperger’s and autism read the Craig Kendall book, New Hope for Autism.

One Response to Asperger’s and Social Skills-How to Express Sympathy for Others-126

  1. teresa haydel says:

    My son had a eguana named Ed.Ed died at 10 yrs.Joe sat on the couch starring at the wall from 12:00 AM to 9:30 AM. I was not living there.I received the call in morn.I asked him how he felt.He said he can not go in his room until his Dad buries Ed.Although Joe showed no emotion, I felt aukward,told him I would miss Ed.The next day Joe said he missed Ed not
    hanging on the cage to watch him play video games.It does take time
    Thank you so very much==teresa !

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