Using Language in a Clear Way for Children with Autism

If you’ve ever heard behavioral therapists speaking with children with autism, you may have noticed that they speak with very clear and minimalistic language. Some people may even think it’s too robotic. So, why do they do it?

A language impairment is one of the main criteria to receive a diagnosis of autism. Many children may have difficulties not only expressing themselves but also understanding what other people say. Adults may think that the child is just ignoring them but in reality, the child may not understand what the adult is saying. Imagine going to a foreign country with people speaking a language that you do not understand and having no means of figuring out what the people are saying. If someone says, “Hey you, come here” in their language, would you respond?  If you don’t understand what they are saying you probably would not respond. This is how your child might be feeling.

The next time you try to give instructions to your child, think about this, and try some of the techniques we’ve outlined below.

First, use clear and minimalistic language. Say, “come here” instead of “hey Johnny, will you please come here now?!”

Second, to increase the likelihood that your child will pay attention to you and hear what you are saying, try the following strategies:

  • Give your instruction while you are physically near your child (i.e., next to them).
  • Crouch down close to your child so your voice and face are closer to him, increasing the chance of him looking at you.
  • Physically touch your child to bring his attention to you.
  • Talk to him about what he is engaged in before giving your instruction. For example, if your child is playing with Legos, you can first make a comment about the activity such as, “I really like what you built!”
  • If needed, interrupt his play if he is engaged in a highly preferred toy or activity before giving your instruction.

When these strategies are combined, they may help increase the likelihood that your child will understand you and follow through with what you instructed them to do.

Teaching alternative behaviors to decrease or stop inappropriate challenging behaviors

Implementing a behavior intervention plan to decrease or stop a challenging behavior is one thing.  Teaching an alternative to the challenging behavior is another.  Imagine this: your child climbs on the kitchen counter to reach for a jar of cookies way up in a cabinet.  Can you implement a plan to decrease or eliminate the behavior of climbing on the counter?  Yes, but there is also a chance that your child will just learn another challenging behavior to get him the same result.  In practice, it is always best to teach and alternative behavior.  Teaching the alternative behavior, in a way, can make the “unlearning” of the challenging behavior much faster.

There are four reasons why children may engage in challenging behaviors: either to get something she or he wants (access), to get out of doing something they don’t want (escape), to get attention, or because the behavior itself feels good or pleases them (self-stimulatory/automatic).  The general theme that you will see throughout this article is that the alternative behavior that you should teach your child should still lead to your child getting what they want (i.e., one of the four reasons).

Let’s say your child screams and throws objects when they are done with their dinner.  Your child is trying to get out of something—the dinner table.  What might you teach your child to do instead of throwing and screaming?  You can possibly teach your child to “properly” communicate when they are done whether it be signing “all done” with their hands, saying “all done,” giving an “all done” laminated picture to an adult at the table, or some other mode of communication based on your child’s repertoire of skills.  At first, assist your child when you begin to see the signs of them being all done by guiding them through the physical movements of communicating (i.e., exchanging a picture or signing), or modeling the words they should use.  Gradually fade this assistance until they are doing it on their own, without engaging in the challenging behaviors.

The same strategies should be utilized for the other “functions” of behaviors, or when your child engages in challenging behaviors for other reasons.  When they want a cookie that is out of reach in the kitchen, teach your child to ask for the cookies using whatever mode of communication is appropriate for your child to replace the climbing on the counters.  It is important to give your child cookies every time they ask when they are first learning as this will be the key to decreasing the challenging behavior of climbing on the counter.  As your child gets used to this process, you can start giving him what he wants once in a while—this is a way to guarantee that the new behavior becomes stronger over time.

For attention-based challenging behaviors, one way to tackle this is to figure out what you think your child should be doing instead of the inappropriate behavior.  Of course, considering your child’s repertoire of skills first is important when figuring out what replacement behavior to teach.  Let’s say your child somehow finds the time you spend with him getting a “lecture” from you reinforcing, maybe one thing that you can do is stop or at least minimize the amount of time that you spend lecturing him and spend more time with him when he is behaving appropriately.  While doing that, also you can also do your best to spend more time with your child when he or she is behaving well (e.g., spending some time to play a favorite game, watching a favorite tv show, about talking about school/anything).

Lastly, when your child engages in challenging behaviors because it feels good, a little more thought has to be put into the alternative behavior.  It should be something that is not harmful and something, preferably, that you can control.  For example, if your child engages in repeating words/phrases or just vocalizing sounds that are not socially appropriate, allowing your child to engage in these behaviors in a particular environment (e.g., their bedroom) and teaching them to ask for “talking in my room” or something similar may help to gain control of where they may engage in this behavior.  When your child engages in this behavior anywhere else, he should be required to use the communication phrase and then go to the specified location.  Self-stimulatory behaviors can be very difficult to address on your own—more so if the behavior is also self-injurious in nature.

It will help you as a parent to practice on these concepts; however, should you continue having difficulties as to how to address you child’s most challenging behaviors, it is a good idea to reach out to a trained professional such as a BCBA as soon as possible.

Why Is Following Through Important When Giving Instructions

One of the biggest concerns that parents have when raising children living with autism is that “their children just don’t listen.” Besides making instructions very clear and giving instructions only when the child is paying attention, the biggest most important thing a parent must do is follow through when the child does not respond.  Not following through when your child does not respond only teaches your child that there is no need to follow your instructions in the future.  This pattern, if not addressed, can be very frustrating and stressful.

Following through; however, can be difficult because many times parents are multitasking on a daily basis: cooking dinner, cleaning up the house, talking on the phone, and telling their kids to clean up in the other room et cetera.  Think about this before giving instructions: make sure you have your child’s full attention before giving your instruction and once you give your instruction, make sure you can immediately assist your child with completing the instruction you just gave.

Imagine this situation.  Mom gives Sally her clothes in the morning and tells her to get dressed.  Mom then leaves the room and tries to get lunches and other kids ready as well.  She comes back and Sally is still in her jammies playing with her dolls.  Mom tells Sally again that she really needs her to get dressed, this time making sure Sally is looking at her while she gives her instruction, points to the clothes, and then leaves again to finish getting things ready for school.  When she comes back five minutes later, Sally is still in her jammies playing with her dolls.  When Sally’s mom tells her to put her jammies on in the future, do you think Sally will comply?  Probably not.

Try this instead.  Mom tells Sally she has three more minutes to play with her dolls then it’s time to get dressed.  She sets a timer so the beep becomes a signal to transition to another activity (dressing).  When the timer goes off, mom is right there to take the dolls and give Sally her clothes.  She tells her “get dressed.”  Instead of leaving the room, mom stays to make sure Sally starts getting dressed.  If Sally just sits there, within about 10 seconds mom tells Sally again to get dressed but this time mom helps Sally start taking off her jammies, gradually backing away as Sally does more and more of the task herself.  Mom does not leave the room and does not repeatedly tell Sally “get dressed” without helping and making sure Sally does get dressed.  Once Sally is done getting dressed, Sally’s mom gives her the dolls back for 5 more minutes of play before school as a reward for getting dressed.  Here, Sally will learn, over repeated times of Sally’s mom following through, that when her mom tells her to get dressed, she cannot continue playing with her toys unless she does what her mom says.

Again, one of the most important factors when increasing your child’s compliance is follow through! How easy is this for you to do?