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Tips to Help Children with Autism Follow Instructions

10/22/2019 by Leigh Zucker, BCBA

As BCBAs we often get asked by parents how to get their child to follow demands placed at home and in the community. Here are some things to do before and after a demand is placed to help your child follow your instruction.

Use Behavioral Momentum

Prior to presenting a demand that you know your child has difficulty following, it is helpful to get some momentum going to increase the likelihood that they will comply. For example, if I know a child has difficulty transitioning inside from the playground, I might present some tasks that I know they will comply with, like “clap your hands” or “touch your nose”, prior to telling them it’s time to come inside. Presenting these easy and quick demands before the larger, more difficult demand creates a behavior momentum, making the child more likely to follow the instruction.

Practice the Premack Principle

The Premack Principle, also known as the first-then statement, is a good strategy to use when you have a more difficult demand to present to your child. You will tell the child what they need to do “first” before getting access to a preferred item or activity. For example, if you want your child to clean up their toys before going to play outside, you could say “First clean up your toys, then you can go outside.” This presents the demand using minimal language, making it easy for the child to understand what they have to do to get access to the more preferred item or activity. Make sure to present the preferred item or activity as soon as they have completed their work to immediately reinforce the behavior.

Follow Through

Only present instructions which you are willing to follow through with. Any demand placed on the child should end with the child completing that task. If you allow your child to not follow your instruction, then you are showing them that they do not need to follow the instruction. If you do not consistently follow through, this creates what is called intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement will lead to the unwanted behavior continuing to occur in the future. It also teaches the child that they do not need to consistently follow instruction(s) you have delivered.

Once intermittent reinforcement has occurred, it will likely produce problem behavior that is more resistant to change. It also teaches the child that they can get out of the demand(s) that have been placed by engaging in an unwanted behavior, making it more likely in the future that they will use the same unwanted behavior to get out of other tasks.

If you have not previously followed through with a demand, it is typical to see pushback from the child when you begin to follow through. You may notice an extinction burst, or an immediate increase in the frequency of the unwanted behavior after reinforcement has been removed (like when a child is no longer able to escape an unwanted demand). Remember to stick with following through. Just as you would be confused if you had to start following instructions that you previously did not, your child may be confused as well. If you give in once the maladaptive behavior occurs, you are reinforcing that problem behavior. Consistency is key! Check out our blog post about avoiding reinforcing challenging behaviors for more information on this topic.