Thursday, June 15, 2006

Teaching empathy to autistic children

Temple Grandin, a good source of ideas on autism, writes that she only became capable of comforting others, or of appreciating the needs of others, when she was able to identify her needs and comfort herself.

This is the root of empathy. It is why, for example, strong children don't routinely hit weaker children. So if one needs to manage hitting problems with autism, then empathy seems a possible starting point. It would help, of course, if there was any data.

There's precious little. The best I've found is this 2004 literature review by an occupational therapist. It's the only starting point we have.
Best Practice Guidelines: Evidence Based Practice Information Sheet for Occupational Therapists Shanna Phelps, December 2004

....Summary of the Evidence

The evidence shows that children with Autism lack empathy. Teaching empathy to children with autism has been successfully done using a two-part modeling system. There has been a lot of research done on autism and empathy and only one model for Occupational Therapy has come from it. The supporting evidence has shown learning procedures done on children with autism that may have facilitated an empathetic response.

Implications for Consumers

Children with autism can learn skills towards empathizing from a two-part model system in an Occupational Therapy Pediatric Clinic. Occupational Therapists can teach such skills to children with autism, (i.e., recognizing facial expressions, pretend-play, and role playing) with a two-part model. It is still to be determined whether peer modeling can be a successful tool in teaching children with autism empathetic behavior.

Implications for Practitioners

There has not been enough research done on how OT's can intervene and teach children with autism to show empathy. There needs to be more research done on the two-part modeling system, introduced by Pepperberg and Sherman. This is an area that has potential for growth in Occupational Therapy practices.

Implications for Researchers

* More experimentation needs to be done in this area. The research is out there but the intervention plans have not yet been tried.
* The areas of empathy need to be broken down and put into practice and used to strengthen the social skills in children with autism. (i.e., identifying facial expressions, pretend play, identifying with peers, role play etc.).

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