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Should we use direct statements with children with autism?

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

September 30, 2014

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Question

Should we use direct statements with children with autism?

Answer

It is important to use direct simple language with children with autism. This is where I see us often get in trouble.  As parents and teachers, we talk way too much and often we sound like Charlie Brown's teacher.   The more we can be very direct and simple with our language, the better off we are going to be.  We have talked a lot about how children with autism have difficulty understanding language, and so the fewer the words we can use, the better.  If you can do things in just 2 to 3 words and tell them exactly what you want them to do, you are going to have better compliance and they are going to understand what is going on.  As we said earlier, first this, then that, or “Hands in lap” or “Walking feet” or “Do this” or “Sit down.”  Some of those really simple direct statements can be really effective. 

There are also corrective statements.  The word “No” can be a big trigger for children with autism, or for any child.  These can be some big antecedents for challenging behavior.  "No, Stop, Wait, Don’t".  All these things are somewhat subjective and can have multiple meanings.  If you think of the word “No,” how many different meanings does that have?  If I tell my child “No, you cannot have any chocolate,”  that could mean a lot of different things.  That could mean “No they can never have chocolate.”  It could mean “No, you cannot have it right now, you can have later.”  It could mean “No, you cannot have this big bar, but you can have a small piece of chocolate.”  For children with autism, they can be very black-and-white thinkers.  They might not understand that when I tell them, “No you cannot have chocolate,” that does not mean that they can never have chocolate in their entire life. You should limit the times that you use these words and use them for specific reasons.  The word “Stop” is another one that gets really overused a lot.  Since it is overused, we cannot use it when we really need to use it, because it has no meaning to the child.  The times when we really need to use the word “Stop” is when they are running out into a busy street.  We need them to understand that when you say stop, you mean  business.  But what happens is, we use all these words so often that it almost becomes where it does not mean anything to children.  We should limit these words and instead tell them what you want them to do.  Maybe say “Nice try.  Next time let's do this.”  Or just tell them what you want them to do and not acknowledge what you did not want them to do through words.  Also use visuals when possible.

One common example I see is when I have a child come over to work with me at a table or with his teacher or his mom.  I will see people get caught up in the behaviors they do not what to happen.  They will say, "Get up off the floor; come on, don’t do that; keep your hands to yourself; don’t do this."  They are getting so caught up in these words that the child really does not know what they are supposed to do.  I will tell them to just physically help the child get their body right.  Physically help them sit in the chair, physically help them put their hands on their laps and give simple directions and say “Touch your nose” or “Clap,” or whatever you are working on.  Just tell them what you want them to do versus getting so caught up in all the challenging behavior around the activity.

Editor’s note: This Ask the Expert was adapted from the article, "Effective Strategies for Decreasing Challenging Behavior in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders".  The complete article can be accessed here.


tara warwick

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

Tara Warwick is an occupational therapist who graduated from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in 2006 with her Master of Science in Rehab Sciences. She received a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy in 2000 also from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She has spent her entire career focusing on improving the quality of services for children, primarily targeting children with autism. She currently owns an Oklahoma pediatric therapy practice called Today’s Therapy Solutions and is a consultant for Project PEAK through the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center – Child Study Center. She practices as an occupational therapist in home settings, clinic settings, and school settings. Her specialty includes working with children with autism and challenging behavior.


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