In Positive Terms

A teacher and a therapist both commented about the principles outlined in the “Don’t DON’T” discussion in the In-Depth section of the website. “After listening to the discussion, I started informally keeping track of my comments to my students,” said the therapist. “I must confess that I discovered that I do, indeed, say ‘don’t do that’ many more times in a day than I say ‘please do this.’” The teacher said, “I’m making a purposeful effort to avoid telling my students what I don’t want them to do, and to specifically state exactly what I do want them to do.”

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SOME STRATEGIES. The overarching principle is to shift the focus of our directions and instructions by using positive terms to tell individuals with autism precisely what we expect in response to a direction.

Teachers, therapists, and parents almost reflexively say things like, “Don’t put your backpack there,” or “Don’t throw that paper on the ground,” or “Don’t forget to flush the toilet.” And those exhortations usually just fly over the tops of the listeners’ heads. It might be more effective to say things like “Put your backpack here,” or “Keep paper on the table,” or “Flush now, please.”

Interestingly, because of auditory processing issues, some individuals with autism will actually misunderstand our “don’t” statements, and, in an effort to comply with our wishes, they will do the opposite of what we are asking. For example, when we say, “Don’t go out in the backyard while it is raining,” a person with selective hearing issues might just hear the phrase, “Go out in the backyard.” This fairly common auditory processing challenge makes it even more important for us to state the desired behavior in concise, precise terms. In this case, we might say, “Stay inside now, please. It is raining.”

Sometimes it takes some creative thinking to figure out how to state some directions in positive terms. Instead of saying, “Don’t hit your sister,” you can say, “Hands on knees now, please.” Instead of saying, “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking,” you can touch your hands to your lips and say “Good listener now. Lips are zipped, please.” And instead of saying “Don’t run into the parking lot until I am walking with you and we look both ways because you might get run over by a car,” you can say, “Stop, now.”

So, to avoid wasting time and irritating everyone in earshot of our constant stream of nagging, we can steer clear of the temptation to shoot out the word “don’t” and give directions that specifically state the desired behavior in positive terms.

NOTE TO LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At 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.F

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