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Leading with Choice: Honoring and Empowering Autistic Children

April 30, 2021


Find out how offering Structured Choices to your child with autism can lead to easier and happier parent-child interactions.

Are you interested in improving engagement and communication with a child with autism? Would you like to learn a specific strategy, or do you prefer a philosophical approach? If you chose a specific strategy, you have landed in the right place. If, on the other hand, you chose a philosophical approach—well, you are in luck! Leading with Choice is an easy strategy to learn and a great philosophy to live by.

Leading with Choice: Honoring and Empowering Autistic Children

Leading with Choice begins and ends with honoring and empowering children with autism. It also helps adults set boundaries and guide children purposefully. Best of all, it accomplishes both interests through a positive social engagement. This is achieved by offering an abundance of choices throughout the day. But, not just any choice. This is not a free for all or do as you please kind of plan! The choices are offered abundantly and must be structured. Structured Choice is the key!

Why Structured Choice?

Structured Choices are quick and easy. They are related to in-the-moment issues and are offered to children as a primary strategy of interaction. Offering a Structured Choice gives children clear information about what is being communicated. It draws their attention towards the opportunity to make a choice.

Making choices helps children with autism express their interests and gives them a sense of control over their situation. This sense of control helps them feel empowered and self-confident. Leading engagement with children through Structured Choice is a simple, empowering, and positive way to interact.


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Why do we need to help children with autism feel empowered?

The need to feel a sense of personal power is inborn in all people. Children with autism are no exception. Adults’ requests, instructions, and attempts to protect children from harm reduce children’s sense of control over much of their daily activities. Lack of control within situations brings on feelings of frustration. The use of highly developed language and social skills gives most children an appropriate means of maintaining their sense of control by negotiating with adults and expressing their opinions freely.

Children with autism, by nature of the diagnosis, struggle greatly with communication and social skills. These children have fewer abilities to support their need for personal power and often rely heavily on protest behaviors to assert themselves. When adults recognize the disparity between need and the ability to independently gain that need, they can begin to provide the ingredients to support children.

Asking autistic children to engage through Structured Choice offers them the opportunity to feel empowered. Asking also avoids Telling. Providing Structured Choices instead of giving directions allows children with autism opportunities to communicate their interests. Concentrating on choice also prevents the temptation to embark on a yes/no, or accept/reject power struggle.

For instance, if Dad says to his son, “We are going outside. Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your black shoes?” Dad is asking for his son’s opinion while also indicating that he must wear shoes. The child’s mental focus here is on the choice. The child is not provided a direct request to “put on your shoes.” Telling children to follow directions focuses their attention on the command. When autistic children feel a loss of personal power, they often use protest behaviors to express their frustration.

Focusing children’s attention on a choice instead of an expectation is a substantial gift to both child and adult. This gift honors the child’s need to experience personal power while allowing adults to set limits. If children feel empowered, they engage cooperatively. Relating cooperatively results in positive interactions.

Providing many opportunities throughout the day for a child to make Structured Choices can diminish the number of difficult interactions and build a mountain of positive experiences. Enhancing interactions by Leading with Choice makes for enjoyable relationships.

How is Structured Choice delivered?

Structured Choice is a simple strategy to learn. It is designed to be a quick and easy way to support children’s cooperative interactions. It takes no special materials. All that is needed is a willing spirit and some small tweaks in vocabulary and approach to communicating.

The essence of Structured Choice is to present an abundance of specific choice opportunities throughout the day. Choices offered can be as varied as your imagination. Offer choices for all things possible, including objects, activities, locations, foods, drinks, toys, actions, people, and even silly behaviors. Choices can be offered multiple times throughout each activity to help children remain cooperative, focused, and engaged. Here are some tips for presenting choice sets:

  • Offer Structured Choice sets of between two and four choices. Less than two is not a choice and more than four becomes too much information for children to process.
  • Three choices are best because they offer plenty to choose from but not too many to communicate easily.
  • Keeping choices simple and concrete is important.
  • To enhance understanding, limit your words and speak purposefully.
  • When possible, present objects, pictures, or gestures a child can see to help identify the choices. These visual supports will strengthen the child’s comprehension and responses will be quicker.
  • Structured Choices need to be relevant to the current, in-the-moment activity. Ask children what they want right now.
  • After presenting the choices, the child’s indicated preference must be honored immediately.

That’s it! Keep it simple and fun! Developing a habit of interaction through Structured Choice may take a small mental shift. Focusing on offering choices/asking more often than giving instructions/telling will change the interactions immensely. Leading with Choice honors and empowers children with autism and is a gift to both child and adult. May positive engagements bring you joy!

References:

Bloomfield, B.C. (2001). Icon to I Can, a Visual Bridge to Independence. Presentation Materials.

Glasser MD, William (2013-03-19). Take Charge of Your Life: How to Get What You Need with Choice-Theory Psychology. iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Lansbury, Janet. Elevating Child Care: A Guide To Respectful Parenting. JLML Press. Kindle Edition.

Leaf, R., McEachin, J. (1999). A Work in Progress, Behavior Management Strategies and a Curriculum for Intensive Behavioral Treatment of Autism. Autism Partnership.

McNeil, Colette. (2017). Understanding the Challenge of “No,” for Children with Autism: Improving Communication, Increasing Positivity, Enhancing Relationships. MSI Press, LLC. Kindle Edition.

This article was featured in Issue 109 – Attaining Good Health.

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