Teaching Empathy and Thankfulness to ASD Children

Updated on November 9, 2017
DMChristiansen profile image

Christiansen's son, Jackie, is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She is the author of Planet A: A Mother's Memoir of ASD.

ASD Children Have a Difficult Time Showing Empathy

Four Ways to Teach Your ASD Child About Empathy During the Holidays (or Anytime)

One of the hardest things for my son, Jackie, to comprehend is the understanding of other’s emotions. Many children on the autism spectrum find this difficult. Jackie cannot read facial expressions, and he doesn’t know how to see life from another person’s perspective. ASD children live in a black and white world and seeing the grey is sometimes difficult. As the holidays come closer, it is the perfect time to begin conversations about kindness, empathy, and thankfulness.

#1 Volunteer for Charities. My son has a hard time volunteering for anything, but I decided to gather a small group of friends and head to Feed My Starving Children over the holiday break. Once Jackie was there, he really enjoyed the work. He could see the direct effect his work had on children who need food. Volunteering doesn’t have to be on a big scale. Racking leaves for the elderly, preparing a meal for a family in need or collecting food for the food pantry are other things that we have done. We take time to talk about how his actions and time have contributed to another family. Sometimes he understands and feels good and other times it takes several conversations. The older he gets the deeper the ideas of empathy become.

#2 Become a Secret Shopper. Ever Christmas our town comes together to collect gifts for those in need. This is a great way for ASD children to get involved in the community. A family will give a list of the things that they need plus a few wish list things from children. My son loves to shop and it’s fun to pick out toys and clothing that you know will make another child happy. Try not to focus too much on the family’s need and more on the positive effect that your child will have. Instill the joy of giving, especially to those people that we have never met.

#3 Make Your Thankful List. It’s not always easy for families to give financially and there are other ways to teach empathy and thankfulness. Making a list of all the things that we are thankful for helps put your ASD child’s life in perspective. Because they can so easily be caught up in their own issues, creating a visual story board of thankfulness helps them see even the smallest things to be thankful for. We made a large poster, cutting out pictures to represent our home, dog and vacations that we have taken. You can write words that express feelings associated with the pictures on your board. Making a visual list makes the idea of thankfulness concrete for ASD children.

#4 Surprise a Friend. Even the smallest gestures can teach empathy to an ASD child. Making hand-made cards for friends over the holiday can teach your child how to make someone close to them feel special. We have baked cookies and boxed them up and sent funny e-cards to close friends. These are things that many typical children do for their friends that ASD children might not think of. Though Jackie is a loyal friend, giving back emotionally can be difficult for him. Helping him understand how happy he can make others by the smallest things, helps him also understand how friendships work.

Being thankful and feeling empathy don’t always come easy for children on the spectrum. Take it slow when teaching these concepts. Remember that it’s important for our children to give with an open heart and pushing them into uncomfortable situations will only lead them to never want to do them again. Find the balance between what is comfortable for your child and how you can translate that into giving to others. Make sure that you open conversations to talk about how their actions have helped either a family on need or made a friend happy. The holiday season is the perfect time to express joy in the little things and to be thankful for just being together.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers


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      • newbizmau profile image

        Maurice Glaude 

        2 years ago from Mobile, AL

        Many people don't understand those emotions but they learn to fake them anyway to fit in. Crystals can help with this without even knowing why. Rose Quartz can sooth emotions and help with understanding love and empathy while Malachite can help bring out a balance in relationships with other people.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Very interesting. Empathy is extremely important I think.

      • Mohd Sidique profile image

        Mohd Sidique 

        2 years ago

        In India our all friends care every time.Here all people are so support,loving


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