What Did I Say?

The father of a young adult with autism who has been involved in music therapy for almost 20 years was telling me a story that illustrated the need for concrete, specific communication, especially with individuals with autism. Dad said, “I really lost my temper last weekend when I asked my son to put his clothes in the dryer. He just looked at me, started smiling, and ran outside to play with his dog.” The dad went on to say, “I was really angry that he had just ignored my direction to put his clothes in the dryer, but, fortunately, I took a minute to review in my mind what I had said to him. I realized that the words I actually spoke were ‘Put your clothes in the dryer then you can go outside and play with your dog.’ My son wasn’t tuned into the first part of the sentence, but he heard the last part of the sentence loud and clear!”


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SOME STRATEGIES. This type of miscommunication is a problem between all parents and teenagers. For that matter, it is a problem between many husbands and wives and between many teachers and students. My mom always accused my three brothers of “selective hearing.” But the issue is more marked with individuals diagnosed with autism since many of these folks are unable to process language in the same way as their typical peers. I recommend that caregivers follow a three-step process when giving directions. Step 1: Get the person’s attention by standing close and looking at their face with a friendly, pleasant look on your face. Step 2: Say their name, then immediately give a specific, short direction in a friendly but direct tone of voice e.g. “Christopher, please put your clothes in the dryer now.” Step 3: Acknowledge the fact that they followed the direction e.g. “Hey, Christopher. THANKS for putting your clothes in the dryer. Go play with you dog.” Following this three-step process can keep the channels of communication clear and help lower frustration for all concerned.

NOTE TO LISTENERS AND READERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. www.FAQautism.com

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