Unwilling or Unable?

“My daughter rarely follow directions,” commented the dad of a pre-teen diagnosed with autism. “She doesn’t have functional speech, but she is able to communicate her needs and seems to understand much of what we say to her. We don’t know if she is unwilling to follow directions or if she is unable to do so.”

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What keeps this youngster from following directions? Is she unwilling to cooperate? Or is she unable to comply? Following directions is actually a complex task that involves focus, comprehension, processing, compliance, and action. Even if this youngster is willing to comply, many factors may stand in the way of her being able to follow directions.

Focus and Attention. Is she paying attention? Does she realize the direction is
addressed to her and not another person? Does she remember the direction long enough to formulate a response? Does she know you are talking to her? Does she know that you really mean it this time? Does she know what response you want?

Language Processing. Does she have a hearing loss? Are other noises in the room interfering with her ability to hear what you are saying? Is she able to decode the words? Does she recognize that a response is necessary?

Comprehension. Does she understand the words you are speaking? Does she understand the meaning of the words you are speaking? Has she learned different labels? For example, are you saying “Please go to the restroom” and she knows the room as the “bathroom.” Are you using too many words? Maybe she just focused on the end of the phrase e.g. “Put your shoes on so we can go to lunch.” All she hears is “Go to lunch,” so she heads out the door with bare feet.

Formulating a Response. Does she know what to do? Does she have motor-planning skills necessary to initiate a response? Can she translate the desired response into action? Are you allowing enough time for her to follow through before you start nagging her with constant reminders?

Motivation. Does she know the consequences of incompliance? Does she care about the consequences of incompliance? Is she lethargic, depressed, or distracted? Is she just content with the status quo or does she resist change?

Because following directions is a complex task, we need to scout out all the issues that interfere with compliance and help individuals with autism learn to step over those hurdles so they can be both willing and able to follow directions.

Note to FAQautism.com 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

Originally Published: Oct 29, 2007

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