Teaching empathy and reciprocity


Empathy is a socially relevant skill for all of us but must be taught specifically to children and young people with autism because it enhances their ability to engage in other critical prosocial behaviours and activities.

While the challenges of being able to take on another’s perspective, and being able to adjust your interaction accordingly, may misrepresent the expressions of empathy of the children or young people with autism, individuals with autism often do have capacity for empathy. The emphasis, however, is how the “more knowledgeable other” supports the child or young person and the quality of the explanation of the context. (Peter Vermeulen, Context Blindness)

This can be taught by through a variety of media:

  1. making the child or young person with autism aware – providing them with appropriate vocabulary through your comments and awareness of feelings, emotional states, recognition of others’ facial expressions and non-verbal cues.
  1. Using YouTube videos to describe and discuss a range of social scenarios
  2. Video Modelling
  3. Video Self Modelling Indiana Resource Center for Autism offers a guide to support parents and education professionals to develop this effective and evolving strategy which will support the child or young person with autism across his or her lifetime and a variety of novel situations. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/video-self-modeling-how-to-and-examples

Bellini and Akullian (2007) found that video modelling and video self-modelling promote skill acquisition and that skills acquired are maintained over time (Video Modelling and Video Self-Modelling)


Reciprocity, which could be defined as recognising and effectively facilitating the needs of both ourselves and others, is a prerequisite skill when initiating, repairing and maintaining relationships. The teaching and learning process to acquire this skill begins early in development, from a parent cooing at the newborn, to peekaboo, object permanence games in infancy to conversations about daily life with children and young people. The skill adapts and matures the more frequently it is used.

Reciprocity can be taught and learned, remembering that children and young people with autism need explicit teaching and learning examples if he or she is to become socially included.  Create a “two-way street” where communication is dependent on all parties interacting. The process can begin with Turn Taking, an example would include,

Turn taking strategies

Sharing (Asking to use the IPad)


Playing with Others

Inviting others to Play (Playing with others, Asking Others to Play, If someone asks you to play)

Other Social Narratives are available at http://headstartinclusion.org/downloads

Top Tip for teaching reciprocity is to

  1. Expect it,
  2. Highlight it, and then
  3. Help it happen

As the child or young person with autism develops, the process of reciprocity will become more complex, it is a developmental process that will take time and practice in a variety of educational and community settings across a range of topics and with many different people.

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