Perspective Taking in Children with Autism

A significant number of children with autism present with difficulties in social perspective taking.

What is perspective taking?

Perspective taking refers to an individual’s ability to perceive a situation from another person’s point of view. Developing perspective taking skills lays crucial groundwork for an individual’s social development, impacting one’s ability to understand, interpret and respond appropriately in various social settings as they continue to grow older. Some of the higher functioning social skills that require perspective taking include helping, empathy, cooperation, maintaining interpersonal relationships.

Perspective Taking in Neurotypical Children

Children typically start showing observable interest, attention and even concern for others from 2-3 years of age but may still confuse their own perspective with others during the early stages of perspective taking development. As children grow older, they will start developing the ability to guess what people are thinking or feeling based on their behaviors and understand their motivation for certain behaviors by 5-7 years of age.

In the next 3-4 years, children typically develop the understanding that people may have different perspectives of a situation and may thus misinterpret situations depending on their own perspective, and they will also begin to understand that people do not necessarily express their true intentions and feelings. From ages 12-14, children then form more complex understandings of others’ thoughts, feelings and emotions, these include the understanding that there could be multiple motives behind behaviors. They then also learn to maneuver through social situations in which they have conflicting inner motives or when close peers have motives that go against their own.

Socialization influences an individual’s development throughout their lives. This socialization process typically starts becoming more evident at approximately 15-18 years of age, where young adults show more interest and understanding that a person’s culture and environment impact their personality, behaviour, and perspectives. They will also show awareness that as a result of socialisation, sometimes people may not be fully conscious of the reasons why they act the way that they do. From this point onward, individuals continue to fine-tune their perspective taking abilities well into adulthood, perhaps even for their whole life, continuously learning through novel social settings in their lives.

Perspective taking in Children on the autism spectrum

A significant number of children with autism present with difficulties in social perspective taking. As a result, they may engage in less prosocial behavior and are often find it challenging to forge and maintain long-lasting meaningful friendships with their peers.

The perspective taking spectrum was developed to explore the different levels of perspective taking deficits in persons with weaknesses in social cognitive processing. It includes three levels of perspective taking functioning – the severely impaired perspective takers (SIPT), emerging perspective takers (EPT) and the impaired interactive perspective takers (IIPT).

Severely impaired perspective takers often learn about expectations that others have for them through routines and are prone to behavioral distress due to limited communication skills, both non-verbal and verbal. Large groups may be especially daunting to these children and they tend to do best in a 1:1 learning environment or a very small sized group.

As for emerging perspective takers, often have sufficient expressive and receptive language skills to communicate their daily needs. These children show high potential for advancing their perspective taking abilities under guidance of suitable paraprofessionals, using explicit and visual learning techniques. They may still experience some distress in large group settings, and generally require direct instructions from a paraprofessional/education specialist within that setting in order to maintain their attention and break down any complex concepts for ease of their understanding.

Impaired interactive perspective takers tend to be fairly competent in cognitive skills and communication skills. They often show more initiative in interacting with their peers, though they still tend to experience distress when handling interpersonal conflicts and show difficulty in grasping abstract concepts. Nonetheless, these children are often taught in the mainstream educational environment and while they do not necessarily require the constant company of a paraprofessional in the classroom, they will benefit to have guidance from special educators who offer learning strategies and coping methods in order to prevent them from feeling overwhelmed from academic and social demands.

Ultimately, it is of paramount importance that a child’s level of perspective taking functioning is accurately described. This description and understanding should then guide the development of a comprehensive learning plan according to the child’s specific learning needs and aligned with realistic goals for the child’s functioning.

Written by Jia Yi.


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