Be Quiet

What exactly do we mean when we tell someone to be quiet? Do we mean that they must be totally silent, making not a tiny sound? When we say, “be quiet,” do we mean to talk softly so they don’t interrupt a conversation? Or do we say “be quiet” just when we get irritated or have a headache? Sometimes our friends with autism interpret phrases very literally, so it would probably help them if we would tell them exactly what we mean when we say, “be quiet.”

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In reality, there are different tiers of loudness and quietness in our lives. Most of the time, we can tolerate a bit of talking and other noise at home, at school, and in the community. Sometimes we simply need people to talk softly when we are listening to the news or conversing with other people. In a few select situations, it is necessary for people to be very quiet and to make very few, if any, sounds. For example, testing situations at school usually require total silence. Because some people with autism will not pick up on social cues in different settings, they may need help learning what levels of noise are appropriate for different situations.

It is more helpful to specifically describe what level of conversation is required rather than just generally saying, “be quiet.” For example, if people just need to lower the volume a bit, we can say something like, “Please talk softly while I talk on the telephone.” On the other hand, if we are at a concert or other event that requires total silence, we can say, “Please listen very quietly. Make no sounds until we stand up at the end of the concert. No sounds, please.”

We must, of course, make certain our expectations are reasonable. If a friend with autism murmurs or hums repetitively, it is unreasonable to expect them to be totally quiet. The same is true with individuals with autism who tend to repeat phrases or to occasionally shout out or make random sounds. Under those circumstances, we cannot expect a person to be totally silent for an extended period of time, so we need to either avoid those situations or to be prepared to tolerate some verbalizations and sounds.

Keep in mind that we only make matters worse by reacting to sounds with a loud “shhhhh.” It is usually better to develop a quiet, unobtrusive system for reminding folks to be quiet. For example, I use a small card printed with the words, “Quiet, please” or a picture symbol of a person signing “quiet” to use as a reminder during a sermon at church or while at plays or concerts. Some teachers and parents use the “red, yellow, green” symbols of a traffic light to help children know if they can make noises freely (green), or if they should keep the noise level down (yellow), or if they should be totally silent (red).

We welcome your ideas for helping communicate different levels of loudness. Just click on the comments button or send us an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND 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. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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