Perspective taking is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs. Have you ever wondered how to begin helping your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) understand the perspective of others?
Theory of Mind deficits in individuals with autism is extensively documented in research but where do we start? How do we break down this skill into a meaningful and systematic approach?
Perspective taking requires many skills such as recognizing the emotions of others. But to recognize the emotions of others children must first learn to read facial expressions. This skill needs to be taught to all children, especially children with autism. It is the intent of this article to provide you with concrete ideas and examples of how to teach the skill of recognizing facial expressions to children with autism, both in the home and school setting.
Let’s be honest, many of us haven’t had to think about what facial expressions look like. It’s a skill, for many of us, that comes naturally and doesn’t require conscious thought. Therefore, we may have difficulty using language to describe a variety of facial expressions to our children. Taking some time to look at pictures of facial expressions may be helpful for both parents and professionals working with children with autism.
When someone is angry, how can we describe the way their eyes look? If someone is happy, how does the positioning of their eyes change? What type of language can we use to describe this? Thinking about these questions will help give us the language we need before diving into activities and instruction. A useful resource to give us accurate descriptions of how faces look when people experience certain emotions is Test Your Emotional Intelligence: How well do you read other people? published by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine.
The quiz will help you understand your depth of knowledge on the subject of facial expressions as well as provide you with explicit descriptors and language to use for each facial expression.
Embedding instruction into children’s literature
Reading to children is one of the best ways to help children experience different worlds, imagine different experiences, and see the world from different perspectives. This, in turn, helps us become more empathetic by helping us understand others feelings and perspectives. While reading picture books to children, we can use the following prompts to teach children about facial expressions portrayed by the characters:
“I notice (describe nonverbal cues in detail). This makes me think the character is (name feeling). I’m going to make my face/body look like that (model nonverbal cues).”
“It seems like (character) is (name feeling). I know this because (describe nonverbal cues in detail).”
“How do you think (character) might be feeling? How do you know?”
“I wonder how (character) is feeling? How can we tell? Make your face/body like that.”
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Creating visual examples
“I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me.” Dr. Temple Grandin (2006). When learning concepts, Dr. Temple Grandin needed to see a variety of pictures of a concept to generalize her knowledge. It may be helpful to create posters or visuals containing a wide variety of examples of each facial expression after reading picture books. Use pictures of the characters from the book and pictures of the students imitating the facial expressions. This uses what we know about the neurology of individuals with autism to support their learning.
Pass the Face game
Going through the motions of making a facial expression allows us to experience the associated emotion. Research has established that asking people to imitate certain facial expressions shows changes in brain activity that are characteristic of the emotion being imitated. In addition, we experience the same changes in heart rate, skin, and body temperature that are associated with the emotion we are imitating (Decety and Jackson, 2004).
Pass the Face is a fun game developed by Peace First that involves children imitating nonverbal cues associated with specific emotions while still having fun! Think of the game telephone. This is a similar concept with the goal being to pass on a facial expression versus a verbal message. Have children stand in a circle facing each other. Children will only see the face once when it is passed to them. Instruct the children that when they are tapped on the shoulder, it’s their turn. At that time, they should look up at the face of the person next to them, imitate the face, and pass it on to the next person.
As the face gets passed, each child should try to guess which feeling is being imitated, through facial expressions, without sharing it out loud. Once the face has been passed around the circle, the group should guess what emotion was being portrayed.
Sorting facial expressions
Sorting tasks helps to remove language barriers for children with autism. Visually setting up the activities in an organized manner, helps children understand what to do without needing to rely on additional language. Providing children with a variety of pictures of facial expressions and asking them to sort them into specific emotions supports their strength in visual processing and provides them with a large sample of visual examples.
Teaching perspective taking to children, especially children with autism, can feel like a daunting task. Hopefully, when asking yourself how to begin, you will now have a few concrete activities and examples to give you a place to start, while working with what we know are about the neurology of autism.
This article was featured in Issue 90 – Practical Ways to Build Skills for a Lifetime