Be Good

What exactly do we mean when we tell a youngster we expect them to be good? What does a teacher mean when she reports a student was good in class? How can a person with autism who interprets words and phrases quite literally respond to a stern instruction from an adult to “be good” in the cafeteria, in the car, or at grandmama’s house?

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Sometimes we use the phrase “be good” sort of as another way to say, “Have a nice day” or “Hope you have fun at school.” But, in reality, our telling children to “be good” can often be translated to mean one of three things:
(1) “Stay out of trouble”
(2) “Don’t do anything to embarrass me”
(3) “My head hurts and I have dozens of things that must be done right now, so don’t bug me.”
Because people with autism interpret phrases literally, we cannot expect them to pick up on these cues and to translate our hidden meanings.

Two thoughts to keep in mind about goodness.
BE SPECIFIC. Rather than using vague terms like “be good,” it is more effective to tell people with autism exactly what we do expect. So, when Terry visits her grandmother, we can say something like, “Keep hands quiet. Listen to Grandmama’s words. Smile!”
TAKE NOTICE. It is important to remember that “good behavior” can also be defined as “lack of bad behavior.” For example, if a youngster immediately pushes his cup and plate off the table when he sits down for a meal, we might say, “Are you going to be good at lunch today?” If he waits 15 seconds before pushing food and drink to the floor, we need to recognize that as a good sign. And as he decides to take a drink before throwing his cup, we need take notice of that action and build on that progress.

TIP FOR THE DAY: Clear, specific communication is helpful in autism, so make certain your friend with autism knows exactly what you mean when you tell them to “be good.”

I also encourage YOU to “be good” by telling your colleagues as well as family and friends of individuals with autism about our daily podcasts and e-mail posts. They can click on Thanks for being good!

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 a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. 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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