Teaching Social and Emotional Concepts to Youth with Asperger Syndrome

By — Autism Society
Updated on Sep 10, 2009

Patricia Howlin, a researcher from the UK, once said that being on the autism spectrum is like falling through Alice’s looking glass (from Alice in Wonderland)—the world appears chaotic and confusing. Social information doesn’t seem to make sense, not even our natural social order. A child with Asperger Syndrome (AS) may not understand that the teacher is the boss, not him, and so may become terribly frustrated when he does not get to make the rules at school. Such social confusion can easily lead to social stress, anxiety and even aggressive behavior.

We have learned that individuals on the autism spectrum seem to learn best when taught within visual and predictable routines. Simon Baron Cohen and Ofer Golan (2008) suggest that if individuals on the autism spectrum possess good systematizing skills, it may be possible to use those skills to compensate for difficulties in empathizing or social thinking skills. This would imply that many students with AS learn best by using visual and predictable “systems.” Dr. Tony Attwood (2006) says that the more someone with AS understands his or her emotions, the more able that person is to express them appropriately.

The Incredible 5-point Scale (Buron & Curtis, 2003) introduces the use of a scale to teach social and emotional concepts to individuals who have difficulty learning such concepts, but who have a relative strength in learning systems. To better understand how you might teach a concept using a scale, consider the following situation:

John is 14 years old and has Asperger Syndrome. He has a tendency to say hurtful things to other students and adults. His team does not think he understands how his words are affecting how other people think about him. This behavior is impacting John’s ability to make and keep friends. It is also affecting how his teachers feel about him. The school psychologist has had numerous talks with John, carefully explaining how making comments about someone’s weight or acne is not polite, and will most likely create hard feelings. Although John seems to listen during these sessions, his behavior has continued.

The team decided to try using a word scale (figure 1). The first step was to break down the whole idea of words and how they impact other people’s thoughts about John. At one end of the scale were words that made people feel good about themselves and John. At the other end of the scale were words that made other people feel bad. The team decided that since John did not appear to notice how his words made other people feel, and since he was nearing adulthood, they should include even more severe situations where words might actually get him in trouble with the law.

Figure 1: The Word Scale

5 The worst possible words. These are threatening words. These words make people think you are going to hurt them. These words are actually against the law. Saying you are going to kill someone or bring a gun to school is an example of #5 words.
4 Angry words. These are words that people say when they are very angry. These are usually swear words. Saying a swear word could get you in trouble at school or fired from a job. Using swear words when you are angry is a bad habit, so be careful.
3 Hurtful words. These are words that make other people feel sad or upset. They might be rude words about how someone looks or teasing words. These words make other people feel uncomfortable around you. It is hard to make many friends when you use these hurtful words.
2 Just fine words. These words feel pretty good to other people's ears. Just fine words are everyday words like "hi" or "see you later." People feel good when you use these social words. These are words that make other people feel comfortable.
1 Sweet words. These are words that actually make other people feel good about themselves. Sweet words are compliments like, "I like your hat" or "What a nice drawing." We say these words to other people just because we want to make them feel good. Using sweet words is one of the best ways to make friends.

The team introduced this scale to John using a memo clearly outlining what the scale was about and examples of what each level indicated (figure 2).

Once John learned about the word scale and studied it repetitively, the scale was used to refer to all words that emerged or to explain problems that stemmed from his use of words. Using black and white, concrete wording in the scale provided a non-confrontational, honest, non-judging, systematic and visual way to help John understand how his behavior impacted others in his environment.

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