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How to Get an Autistic Child to Listen

March 8, 2024

Gaining cooperation from any child can be a challenge. In the midst of the daily struggle to get through the schedule, many parents find themselves struggling with how to get an autistic child to listen or follow directions. As frustrating as these moments can be, there are ways of meeting your child where they are to help them be successful in meeting your requests. 

For children with autism, difficulties with cognitive flexibility can make it hard to switch their focus to what you’re asking them to do, especially if they are immersed in a preferred activity. Communication differences can stand in the way of mutual understanding, and executive functioning deficits can inhibit children with autism from being able to plan and carry out the steps needed to complete a task.

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How to get an autistic child to listen to you

Despite these challenges, as a parent, you are the most equipped person to help your child grow in this area of their development. Your warm, loving relationship with your child is the foundation for gaining cooperation. When children feel cared for and connected, they are more likely to work with you to meet your requests. 

You can support your child in following directions well using this six-step process. 

Step 1: Understand your child’s perspective

Entering your child’s world is the first, and perhaps the most important, step toward getting an autistic child to listen. Understanding how your unique child sees and experiences the world around them can inspire empathy and connection and offer a fresh perspective on what might be standing in the way of your child’s cooperation at the moment.  

Step 2: Use simple language and provide clear instructions

Fewer words offer clarity and increase the likelihood that your request won’t get lost in context. For example, instead of saying, “Go and grab your pajamas from your drawer because we’ll need them after your bath,” you might simply say, “Please get your pajamas.”

If you want your child to go through a more complex sequence of actions, break it down into smaller, more manageable steps. Instead of saying, “Please get ready for bed,” you might start with, “Let’s get the toothbrush.”

Using a visual aid, like a checklist with pictures for the “getting ready for bed” sequence of steps, can also help your child through the process.

Step 3: Give feedback instead of repeating instructions

Rather than repeating the same instruction over and over again, which can be frustrating for you and your child, give a clear, simple instruction once. After that, follow it up with feedback to guide your child.

Highlight any positive effort they are making, and shape their behavior with specific feedback to help them move closer toward the goal. 

Mother talking to her daughter on the sofa
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Step 4: Give your child some time to process

Some autistic children may need more time to process the instructions given to them, so moving at a slower pace is helpful in giving your child time to do what you are asking of them. The more space you afford your child to respond to your request, the more empowered they will feel when they follow through on their own. 

Patience and understanding go a long way in helping an autistic child to listen and successfully meet the demands placed upon them by parents.

Step 5: Use positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can encourage a child to repeat the desired behavior in the future. Whether you offer verbal praise, a high-five, or even a tangible reward at times, it is important to acknowledge their efforts.

As time goes on, consistent positive reinforcement will help your child to create new patterns of behavior that will benefit them and the entire family.

Step 6: Seek professional help

Parenting a child with autism can be overwhelming at times. Seek professional guidance if working together with your child still feels challenging after implementing some of these ideas. No one needs to walk this journey alone – there are professionals available to support your family.


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Patience and understanding go a long way

Armed with patience and empathy for their perspective, you can work together with your child to gain greater cooperation. You are the expert on your child. When you tap into your child’s strengths, you can scaffold your requests and support in order for them to be successful in following through.

Learning more about autism, connecting with other parents, and tapping into professional services in your community can help to support you and your family.

FAQs

Q: Can you discipline an autistic child? 

A: Children with autism need loving guidance, like any other child. However, it is important to keep in mind your unique child’s capabilities and struggles. Many children with autism thrive with short, clear directions, a prepared environment that is safe and easy to navigate, a structured routine, and plenty of positive reinforcement.

Q: Should you punish an autistic meltdown?

A: When a child with autism has a meltdown, it is often because they are experiencing sensory overload or are feeling flooded with emotions, like fear or anger, that they can’t verbally express. In these moments, staying calm, keeping the child safe, and offering plenty of empathy and understanding are key. Punishment is never appropriate – your child is having a hard time and needs your support.

Q: Why is it challenging for autistic children to listen and follow instructions? 

A: Children with autism may struggle to process complex language, regulate their behavior, and understand social cues, which can make it challenging for them to meet expectations. They may find it difficult to switch from preferred activities to tasks required by adults. Taking the time to understand these challenges fosters empathy and patience when supporting children with autism. 

Q: How can visual aids help with communication in autistic children?

A: Visual aids such as picture symbols, schedules, and choice boards can help autistic children follow instructions and communicate when they struggle with verbal language, boosting their confidence. Additionally, visual aids provide consistency in daily routines and how tasks are given, making verbal instructions easier to understand.

References:

  • Berliner, S.E., Moskowitz, L.J., Braconnier, M. et al. The Role of Parental Attributions and Discipline in Predicting Child Problem Behavior in Preschoolers with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Dev Phys Disabil 32, 695–717 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10882-019-09715-y
  • Tarver, J., Palmer, M., Webb, S., Scott, S., Slonims, V., Simonoff, E., & Charman, T. (2019). Child and parent outcomes following parent interventions for child emotional and behavioral problems in autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Autism, 23(7), 1630-1644. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319830042 

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