Say What you Mean

“Our son seems to always do the opposite of what we ask him to do,” said parents of an 11-year-old diagnosed with autism. “This is becoming quite a problem at home and at school. Last week, both of us told him very clearly not to go out the door, and out he went, right into the street.”

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SUGGESTED STRATEGIES. It is quite possible that your son is not picking up on the first word of your sentences. For example, when you say, “Don’t go out the door,” he may just be hearing “Go out the door.” And if you say, “Don’t get up from the table yet,” he may be hearing “Get up from the table.” Because of deficits in auditory processing, many individuals with autism hear just parts of sentences. Several months ago, a dad wrote about his son running out to play with his dog immediately after the dad said, “Son, you need to put your clothes in the dryer first, then you can go out and play with the dog.” In this case, the youngster only heard, “You can go out and play with the dog.”

For a variety of reasons, individuals with autism do not always process language in the same way as their more typical peers. They may not be paying attention to the speaker or they may simply not process every word in a sentence. Sometimes the miscommunication is due to the fact that many individuals with autism translate words very literally. For example, a young kindergarten student with autism followed his teacher’s instructions to the letter earlier this week. She said to the class, “Get your snack from the counter, then sit down and eat.” So, the youngster picked up a little sack of animal crackers and promptly sat down right in the middle of the floor and started eating. The teacher, of course, actually meant for the students to take their snack to the group table to eat. But her actual words were, “Get your snack from the counter, then sit down and eat.” So, that is what he did! Fortunately, the teacher didn’t add to the confusion by fussing at the youngster. But it did take her some time to figure out why he sat on the floor, blocking all the other students from the snack basket on the counter.

All of this is to say that your son may be misunderstanding your directions or he may simply pushing the limits and choosing not to follow directions. But, no matter the cause, the best strategy is to avoid saying “don’t” and to state exactly what you want him to do in clear, concise, firm tones. Then stand and wait for him to follow those direction. When you actually say what you mean, your son might cooperate.

NOTE TO LISTENERS AND READERS: 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.

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