Encouraging Empathy: How to Teach Apologies to Children on the Autism Spectrum

Learning to apologize isn’t easy for a child. Displays of remorse involve feeling the other person’s pain and admitting that you had a hand in causing it.

For children on the autism spectrum, developing the empathy needed to offer sincere apologies may be even more challenging, according to Daniela Fazzio, PhD, BCBA-D, adjunct faculty in Simmons University’s online master’s in behavior analysis program.

“Children start learning from their parents telling them from a very young age, ‘You should go and apologize,’ and they also learn from observing others,” she said. “Young children on the spectrum don’t learn as well from naturally observing, unless they are extremely interested, by being told to do something.”

But apologies, when warranted, are a social tactic that is expected; they are effective in soothing hurt feelings and strengthening relationships. Parents, teachers, and caregivers can help children understand when an apology is appropriate and develop empathy for the feelings of others.

Fazzio offers insights from applied behavior analysis (ABA) below to help support this learning process for children on the autism spectrum.

When Are Children on the Spectrum Ready to Learn About Apologizing ?

Adults should be aware of how wide the autism spectrum is, said Fazzio. Children differ in their abilities to understand and use language, as well as recognize emotions, two essential skills for learning how to apologize. She underscored the importance of not making children say, “I am sorry” — a lot of children can learn to repeat those words somewhat easily — but to fully teach the social awareness and the feelings that ideally go with the apology. 

“There are kids who won’t understand the concepts or wouldn’t be going to a social skills lesson because they’re too young or because developmentally they’re not there yet,” Fazzio said.

A behavior analyst can help parents, teachers and caregivers assess a child’s readiness to learn about socioemotional skills and prepare lessons appropriate to their developmental stage.

What Role Do Adults Play in Teaching Apologies ?

All children need guidance in learning how to apologize. The adults in their lives can help them recognize when an apology is appropriate and which words to use. When you witness a child hurt someone else or damage another’s property, you have three options:

  • Immediately prompt an apology.
  • Give the child time to reflect and then prompt an apology.
  • Withhold the prompt and let the child decide whether or not to apologize.

Which option you choose depends on several variables. Consider the child’s level of socioemotional development. They should be capable of identifying and labeling emotions and also have receptive language ability — the ability to understand spoken or written language. Ask yourself:

What are the norms of the child’s age group?

Toddlers, for example, are not expected to offer sincere apologies. But 12-year-olds are typically held accountable for their actions.

What is the severity of the harm caused?

More significant incidents, such as major damage to property, may necessitate an apology whether the child understands it or not, because this a societal expectation and demonstrates a respect for good stewardship. In this kind of scenario, the child may not build empathy, but they might learn about the importance of following the social rules that help keep our communities together.

What are the expectations of the social setting?

Following the rules established by a group is an expectation in education, work, and neighborhood settings. Some teachers, for instance, require children to apologize after making a mistake. Even if the child doesn’t understand why the apology matters, they may develop a better understanding of what it means to be part of a community with a shared space and common goals.

When possible, Fazzio believes it’s best not to prompt the apology. Prompted apologies may have more to do with “the parents’ desire that the child would fit in and that others in the community will see the child as polite or likeable,” she said. 

Sometimes prompting an apology is appropriate given the social setting or the level of harm caused. For example, if a child tears a few pages from a library book, a direct apology given to the librarian soon afterward may be appropriate.

However, children are more likely to understand why the apology matters when they have space to reflect on what happened. They can see the other person is upset and have time to connect those emotions to their own actions. Also, if the child has purposefully caused harm while acting out, the immediate moment may not present a learning opportunity because of emotional dysregulation.

Remember that teaching children about apologies is not about creating a sense of guilt. Rather, the lesson is about understanding how our own actions, both helpful and harmful, affect the people around us. When our actions harm others, an apology is an appropriate, and often expected, social skill.

How to Explain an Apology to a Child on the Autism Spectrum

Developing a sense of empathy is essential step in learning to offer sincere apologies. When a child understands how their actions make others feel, they will be more likely to understand why apologies matter. Below, learn the steps of empathy and how you can teach them to a child.

The Anatomy of Empathy

Scenario: Imagine you have just seen Naomi push Jordan in the lunch line, and now Jordan is crying. How can you help Naomi build a sense of empathy for Jordan and understand how an apology could help?

What Happened?

The first step to developing empathy is understanding what happened physically and emotionally.

Try asking exploratory questions like:

  • Why is Jordan crying?
  • Did you push him in the lunch line?
  • Was it an accident? Did you mean to hurt him?

Then you can help the child recognize their own emotions, pair them with appropriate words, and see the emotions of others.

Try asking:

  • How do you think Jordan feels?
  • You look sad right now. Would you like to talk about what’s wrong?
  • What emotions are you feeling right now?

Children are not fully emotionally competent until seven or eight years old, according to Fazzio, so helping a younger child recognize emotions may be all you can do.

What Was Your Role?

Next, you can gently guide the child in understanding how their actions may have caused the emotional or physical hurt.

Try asking:

  • Why do you think Jordan is crying?
  • Is he crying because of something you did?
  • How would you feel if someone pushed you?

The purpose is not to make children feel badly but to coach them to understand how their behavior affects others in a shared environment. This helps them realize when an apology is appropriate and helpful, whether for a simple mistake (stepping on a foot) or a complex one (an emotional outburst).

What Can Apologizing Do?

If the child recognizes how they were involved in causing physical or emotional pain, you can assist them in understanding why an apology is important.

You could try saying:

  • An apology can help Jordan feel better and even make you better friends.
  • Your classmates are the people you learn and play with every day, and they need to be treated with kindness and respect.
  • When we hurt others, we apologize and try to make things right because that’s how we want them to treat us, too.

What Do You Think You Should Do?

Give the child the choice about whether to apologize or not. Say, “If you don’t feel like apologizing, you don’t have to. But here’s what the result could be.”

If the child is a literal communicator, they may not want to apologize because they feel their actions were justified and appropriate. Know that this is OK, and empathy is built over time. Try not to force the child to apologize. Keep working with the child so they may recognize and label their emotions and appreciate the feelings of others. Below is a guide with additional information to consider when apologizing.

A Guide to Apologizing

With insights from Fazzio, BehaviorAnalysis@Simmons developed conversation scripts that children on the autism spectrum can use as a guide for what to say when apologizing.

Before sharing this guide, adults should ensure the child is ready to practice apologizing. The child should be able to understand language, written or spoken, and recognize and label emotions.

What should I say?

  • Simple apologies can go a long way. Say you’re sorry for what happened.
  • Explain that you’ll try your best not to make the same mistake again.
  • Ask yourself if your apology made the relationship better.

What if someone doesn’t accept my apology?

  • Know that you did a great job apologizing.
  • For some people, an apology is all that’s needed to make a relationship better. For others, it won’t be good enough no matter what you do or say.
  • Ask yourself or talk with an adult you trust about your apology. How did it go? How are you feeling about it?

What else can I do?

  • Do you want to try something else? Try writing a card or getting another item to replace one that was broken.
  • Remember that you did your job, and maybe you can try again tomorrow.
  • Focus on what you can do so this mistake does not happen again. A teacher or parent can help you with this.

What can I say if I don’t understand why I need to apologize?

  • It’s OK that you don’t understand. I would like to help you.
  • Remember that apologies are common. When you hurt someone’s feelings or when you damage something, an apology is an appropriate response.
  • Think about times people have told you they were sorry or about apologies you’ve seen others give. Did you feel better?

What if I still don’ t understand?

  • You don’t have to apologize if you don’t want to.
  • But if you want to, you could say: “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt. I don’t understand how my mistake upset you, but your friendship is important to me. I want to do better next time.”
  • If you’re not ready to apologize in person, you could write a letter and give it to them.

What if it was an accident?

  • Someone’s feelings can be hurt even if what you did was an accident. An apology can help you both feel better.
  • Explain you didn’t mean to make them upset. Trying saying, “I’m sorry you are hurting.”
  • Recognize and take responsibility for your mistake, even if it was an accident.
  • Tell them that you hope they feel better.

What if I wanted to hurt them?

  • Maybe you don’t want to apologize because you did mean to cause harm.
  • Think about what’s important to you. What do your parents and teachers value? What makes you feel good?
  • Consider how you would feel if someone hurt you or damaged something of yours. Remember that apologies can help people feel better, even if you don’t feel good about it.
  • Try saying, “I can see my actions hurt you.”
  • Explain, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

What do I say when someone apologizes to me?

  • When someone apologizes to you, you get to decide whether or not to accept the apology.
  • To accept, you could simply say, “Thank you. It’s OK.”
  • If you don’t accept their apology, try to still be kind.
  • Thank the other person for their apology or say, “I understand you didn’t mean to hurt me.”

When appropriate, an apology can help deepen relationships and create stronger, more caring communities. With practice and time, children can develop a sense of empathy for those around them.

Citation for this content: Simmons University's online master's in behavior analysis program.