Is your child:
A parent may notice that her kind and friendly child has no idea how to react when another child is crying. Maybe your child ignores a crying peer. Perhaps he gets angry and bothered by the noise or he gets incredibly upset himself, having a huge overreaction to another child feeling upset.
Any of these responses reflect poor perspective taking. When a child does not understand the feelings and experience of another child he or she is likely to be puzzled and to react uncomfortably.
A small child with good perspective taking might put a hand on the child’s shoulder and say, “it’s okay.” Another child with good perspective taking might approach the teacher and say, “Steven is upset, he needs some help.”
These children understand Steven is sad and know what sad feels like. They wish to help. They do not ignore him, overreact or become annoyed.
Perspective taking allows a child to understand some of what another child is experiencing. Even very young children in preschool are capable of perspective taking. They see a peer or younger child upset and want to help.
Parents can see perspective taking skills or challenges at home too. In relation to parent child and sibling relationships,
Perspective taking allows a child to be patient with another person, to understand the other person’s experience, to know what the other person wants, and what might help get those needs met.
Sometimes parents will notice their child does not seem to understand the concept of doing something just to make someone happy. Children with poor perspective taking may believe it is unfair for a baby brother to not be required to sit through dinner or to eat all his vegetables.
Rule following: Some children follow rules simply because ‘you have to’ and so they may appear kind, even though their perspective taking skills are lacking. They may be sweet and gentle toward a sibling in order to earn a trip to the playground simply because gentle behavior is expected. These children might be very sweet, compliant and rule following even though they struggle to understand another person’s perspective.
Other children can be more behaviorally challenging. They may be more likely to hit or push a much younger sibling because they think a baby should be capable of following the same rules as a school-age child. Children who struggle with perspective taking tend to think that everyone shares their perspective.
Take the classic cookie box example: “Mom takes an old cookie box to store dry pasta in, leftover from last night’s dinner. Suzie sees the box in the cupboard and thinks, yay cookies!! She opens the box and is disappointed to find dry pasta. Sam walks into the kitchen and see’s the box. What does Suzie think Sam will think is in the box, pasta or cookies?” If Suzie has poor perspective taking, she may say “pasta.”
Perspective taking is understanding another person by taking another person’s perspective. Young children may not understand that another person’s knowledge is different from their own knowledge.
Older children may do just fine on the pasta test but may struggle with insight beyond the obvious. A child may say, “Henry plays soccer” when asked about his best friend. He may not have appropriate depth of insight like “Henry is quiet but he’s very caring. He would do anything for a good friend. He would never intentionally hurt someone.”
A clinician working with a child may ask, “Tell me about your friends?” This question allows children to say what comes to mind and allows a clinician to test for perspective taking. Answers to this question can be interesting.
Examples of poor perspective taking: One child told this author, “I have two tiny friends, their hands are so small and so cute!” Another said, “Sarah has a broken leg, and Anabel doesn’t.” A third little boy said, “My friends have shiny brown skin and slanted eyes. One friend has green eyes that sparkle and look like the merry-go-round.” Each of these three children provided details that do not provide a picture of who the other child is as a friend. Lots of details are physical in nature and/or temporary.
Good perspective taking:A more appropriate answer is “Mark is really smart. He loves to read anime, and we like to work together in math. We love M&M counting games!” or even “Keisha and I play puppies at recess. We both have dogs, and we like them more than our little brothers!” A child should be able to share something about a friend’s interests, experience and perspective.
Autism Spectrum Disorder includes challenges in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. Social communication challenges in autism often include difficulty with knowing what to say, carrying on back-and-forth conversations and reciprocity.
Individuals with ASD may struggle to know how to contribute meaningfully to a conversation or interaction. These challenges stem in part from struggling to understand other people.
What happens for these individuals with autism is as follows:
Internal or Object Focus: Children with autism are often focused on their own thoughts and ideas. They tend to be drawn to objects rather than people. As young children, when others are actively watching, imitating and listening to other peers and adults, children with autism are figuring out how to reprogram the computer. They are studying the vacuum and taking it apart.
Poor Eye Contact:Children with autism do not practice taking the perspective of others. They do not focus on others in that way. Certainly, not all children with ASD struggle with eye contact. Some do though, and this challenge means that they often interact with other people without looking at them. They don’t spend time trying to understand someone else’s gestures and facial expressions. This behavior results in continued challenges with perspective taking.
Focused on Detail: A young child in his or her own world can miss out on the social world around them. Many children with autism develop an uncanny skill for noticing detail and seeing tiny parts of a picture, a Lego model and the remote control. They can take something apart or put it together in a way that other children cannot.
A young child who studies other people with intent instead of studying the object is more likely to develop perspective taking skills. He or she is seeking to understand people around her, and her brain is going to develop this skill accordingly.
Imitation:A young child who is not developing appropriately may not imitate adults. He may appear to be in his own world. He may spin around or flip objects, rather than trying to use them functionally.
A child with solid imitation skills uses observation to understand the way people work and to make sense of the human experience. Take a 1-year-old observed by this author. He can watch his mother or father do something once, even while appearing interested in something else, and then he’ll imitate it.
He grabs the hand blender out of the cabinet and starts making a “vrmmm, vrmmm” sound as if he’s blending a smoothie. He takes the hair straightener from the bathroom and puts his own hair in it. He takes a coffee mug off the table and places it in his pretend sink.
Imitation from a young child shows that the child is watching what others do and paying attention to what others focus on.
Narrative Coherence: An older child with autism may demonstrate poor perspective taking via poor narrative coherence. This difficulty can be evident in conversation because children may struggle to tell an event or story in sequence with the relevant information present. They start in the middle of a story. They don’t tell the sequence of events and they don’t give relevant details.
You may hear a story about ‘Bobby’ and have no idea who ‘Bobby’ is. He could be a neighbor, brother, cousin, uncle; it is unclear because the child did not provide that information. The story teller knows Bobby and he forgets that you may not.
A child with solid perspective taking will understand what you know about a topic and what he knows. If the child is unsure he’ll ask, “Have you seen the new Marvel movie?” This way he knows how much background to give. He will explain who is who and do a better job with story sequence.
Misinterpretation: Teenagers with poor perspective taking tend to misinterpret the intent of others. A teenager may say that someone was making fun of him when really the student was trying to help.
Conversely, a teenager may think someone is a friend when the peer really does have poor intent. Some teenagers will remain quiet. They will disengage from social situations because it is unclear to them what others are thinking and feeling.
A savvy teen knows who his friends are and who is making fun of him. He knows what to say in a conversation and who to spend time with because they have his best interest at heart. Teenagers with autism need support from kind, savvy peers to help reduce misperception.
Teenagers: Gullible or Overperceiving the Negative
A teenager with poor perspective taking can run the risk of being vulnerable to the ill-intentions of others. In this case, the teenager needs to have savvy peers he or she can trust to check in with for confirmation.
A client of one author reported that he would ask a few trusted friends “Does Sarah like me, or is she making fun of me when she does that at lunch?” His parents really could not help in every situation, but his closest friends were helpful. The teenager was subject to being used or manipulated without this support.
As a freshman, he let the junior girls eat his fries and chips at every lunch. He loaned lunch money to those who asked and passed out chewing gum after school. He realized with the help of others, that most of the girls he was hanging out with were taking advantage of his kindness. When it came time for football games, dances and parties, they did not include him.
Another risk for teenagers with poor perspective taking is that they will think the worst of others and not see the peers who are kind, or who are trying to help.
As a parent if you can make sure your child has at least one or two genuine friends, you will find that he or she has more success. Kids do not have to be the most popular, but a couple close peers make a world of difference.
Children: Tend to be Concrete
For children, teach them what is common knowledge and what information they need to provide to others. Some of this information seems obvious to a parent, but your child with poor perspective taking needs this spelled out concretely.
Children with autism tend to be very concrete and respond best to facts and information. A child who develops these skills early will have fewer problems as a teenager.
Young Ones: Engage and Connect
For the young child who studies details and figures out how things work, a parent needs to try even harder to join with and engage this child. Take an interest in the same books, appliances and technology devices and explore them with your child. Model things and praise your child for asking for help. Point things out that are of interest, join with your child and share enjoyment with him or her whenever possible.
ABA Therapy, Social Groups and Psychotherapy:For young children, Applied Behavior Analytic (ABA) therapy can be invaluable. A child’s brain can change to be more aware of others. A child can learn to attend to and respond to others in the environment. As children get older, social skills groups and psychotherapy can also help extensively with perspective taking. It is an important skill to learn when we have social success in mind.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”
 Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
 Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
 Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
 UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
 Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
 Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.https://www.amazon.com/Social-Skills-Picture-School-Beyond/dp/1932565353/
 Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
 Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
 McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.
 Erikson, Erik. Stages of Psychosocial Development
Description: Happy teenage boys sharing exam results
Stock Photo ID: #826212886 (iStock)
Previously Licensed on: August 15, 2018
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology