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.

Figure 2: Memo

To:  John
From:  The Office
Re: Unknowingly hurting other people’s feelings

It has come to our attention that you often say things to other people that hurt their feelings. You probably don’t mean to hurt people’s feelings. You might think that you are just being honest. Since people often judge other people by the words they say, we thought it would be a good idea to help you understand a little more about this.

Nice words or really sweet words make other people feel good about themselves. Whenever you make another person feel good about himself, chances are that person is going to feel good about you too. If you were to think about this on a number scale, you might say that these sweet words are at #1 because they are so easy and not overwhelming.

Number 2 on the scale might be just fine words. These are words that most people feel comfortable with. These are pretty friendly words like “hi” or “what’s up?”  Even waving without saying words could be considered #2.

Number 3 would be hurtful words. This is kind of hard to understand because you might not realize that the words are hurtful, so you need to be really careful. Telling someone they are fat would be using #3 words. People know their own flaws; actually most people are more aware of their own flaws than anyone else!  People don’t like to be reminded of their flaws. If you use #3 words, other people will probably choose to stay away from you. These are not friendly words.

Number 4 words are angry words. These words can sometimes slip out (like swear words), but it is pretty important that we keep them in control. If you use #4 words in front of your teacher, you are likely to get in trouble. If you use #4 words in front of your boss at work, you might get fired. If you use #4 words in front of your girlfriend’s parents, you may not have a girlfriend anymore!  People are very cautious and sometimes worried around people who use #4 words.

Number 5 words are actually dangerous words. These are the worst possible words. These words make other people think you are going to hurt them. These words are actually against the law, even if you think you are only kidding. Saying you are going to kill someone or bring a gun to school are examples of #5 words. You will get in trouble at school, fired from a job and probably lose a few friends if you use these words.

The 5-Point Scale is one example of how educators, parents and other caregivers might support individuals with AS in their attempts to solve social problems or to better understand emotional concepts. It is important to recognize and respect a systematic learning style as a learning strength. Using systems to teach information we typically teach through social and emotional language can help a person with AS begin to grasp the otherwise “hidden” curriculum of relationship.


Attwood, T. (2006). The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

Baron-Cohen, S., & Golan, O. (2008). Systemizing Emotions: Teaching people on the autism spectrum to recognize emotions using interactive multimedia. Chapter in Learners on the Autism Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators, edited by Kari Dunn Buron & Pamela Wolfberg. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Buron, K.D. (2007). A 5 is Against the Law! Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

Buron, K.D. (2007). A 5 Could Make Me Lose Control! Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

Buron, K.D. (2006). When My Worries Get Too Big! Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

Buron, K.D., & Curtis, M. (2003). The Incredible 5-Point Scale. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.