Tag Archives: autism behavior

How to get your child to follow directions in 5 easy steps

Mother and daughter playing with ball in the park

Many parents of children with and without disabilities often struggle with getting get their child to listen to them or follow directions. Here are 5 simple steps we’ve compiled  to follow to help teach your child to listen and follow directions.

  1. Get close to your child before you start talking or giving a direction. It is suggested that you are less than 5 feet from your child before giving any directions. If your child can’t hear you or understand you, they can’t follow your directions!
  2. Gain eye contact with your child. This will get their attention and provide a good opening to give a direction. You may need to prompt eye contact by calling their name. For example, “Johnny, look at me” or use physical guidance to move their face toward yours. ALWAYS praise them for looking at you.
  3. Once you are close and have eye contact give a clear and concise direction.  When giving a direction make it a command or statement, do not make it a question. Instead of saying, “Can you get your backpack”, say, “Get your backpack”. At first it might be necessary to use only simple one-step directions in order to avoid confusion.
  4. Praise and reward your child for every direction that is followed and for all attempts to follow directions. If your child attempts to follow the directions but can’t quite get it done, praise them for trying and help them complete it. Praise and rewards should follow immediately. Avoid negative statements like “That’s not what I asked you to do” and “You aren’t listening to me” and ignore mistakes, remember at least they are trying.
  5. ALWAYS follow through. Make sure your child completes what you ask them to do even if physical guidance (i.e., hand over hand) is needed. In order to avoid empty threats or promises, only issue the directions if you are 100% committed to making sure that your child follows through. Don’t allow your child to avoid or escape directions placed upon them, as you want your child to learn that when you give them a direction the expectation is that it will be followed or you will help.

Remember learning should be fun. The more excited you are about it, the more excited your child will be to do it. You can also make a game of learning to follow directions. Hide a quarter (or something the child likes) somewhere in a room. Tell the child that he may have the item if he will listen to your directions and follow them exactly. Remember give the directions only once and if they find the item they get to keep it.


– guest blogger, Chrissy Barosky, MA BCBA

Manager of Clinical Development, Bierman ABA Autism Centers 


What does an early intervention program look like?

Early intervention programs can range from 25-40 hours per week depending on the child’s need.  If the goal of an intensive and early intervention program is to close the gap between the child and typically developing peers, programs can range from 30-40 hours per week.  Early intervention programs can increase language skills, play skills, social skills, academic skills, self-help skills and help to reduce problem behavior.  Programs should be very “play based” and fun for the child.

Because each child is different, the specific curriculum for an intensive intervention program can very dramatically according to each child’s specific skill strengths and deficits.  For example, one student could be working on things such as fine motor or gross motor imitation as well as developing a communication system through the use of vocals, ASL signs, or PECS and being taught through discrete trial format.  Another student could be working on social skills or group responding skills to prepare the child for the classroom environment through more incidental teaching techniques and teaching in the natural environment.  While each child’s curriculum and the way skills are taught may be different, it all still falls under the umbrella of Applied Behavior Analysis. mom-and-toddler-playing-with-blocks

Key Points to Look for When Selecting an Early Intervention Program

Early detection of autism is essential.  As soon as a diagnosis is made, families should be provided with accurate, up to date information about science-based intervention options.  Often, once a diagnosis is obtained, precious months are wasted as families negotiate the maze of intervention alternatives.  It is important for doctors to direct families to services that are research-based and proven to be effective. Unfortunately, there are many fad treatments, which are also available and claim to be beneficial to children with autism, but have no research to actually support their effectiveness.  In fact, some of these therapies can actually cause more harm than good.

Here are some key things to look for when choosing an appropriate program.

  • There should be plenty of research supporting the effectiveness of the intervention.  Claims and parent testimonials alone does not qualify as research.
  • Therapy should be “data driven” in order to monitor progress and see if an intervention is working.
  • The National Research Council (2001) published recommendations for educating children with autism. They recommend that a child receive intensive behavioral intervention for a minimum of 25 hours per week in a low student-teacher ratio, focusing on a variety of functional skills as well as targeting decreasing challenging behaviors.
  • Parents should be heavily involved in their child’s treatment and receive appropriate parent training.
  • Staff should be well trained and the intervention is directed by a qualified and experienced professional.
  • Pick a provider who has a good reputation within your community


Early intervention services are available for children under the age of 3 and  research indicates that the earlier the child gains access to quality behavioral treatment, the more likely they are to have a better long term outcome.  Check out the latest findings and summaries from the National Autism Center for comparing the effectiveness of different treatments for autism.


Understanding Aggressive Behavior and Children with Autism

Children with autism can often engage in forms of aggression such as hitting, biting, pinching, kicking, throwing objects, head banging, pushing, pulling, or spitting. Children may engage in these behaviors to hurt themselves or hurt others.

It is often misunderstood that it is a childs “autism” that is causing problem behavior, but this is not the case. Children with autism often have difficulty communicating with others and become frustrated. Aggressive behaviors then become a way for the child to communicate. The child may want something such as a drink, snack or help with a difficult activity if frustrated.

1. A child may aggress to communicate he or she wants something (toy, activity, attention)

For example, a child cries because he wants a toy . The parent then gives the child the toy, which stops the child’s crying. Giving the child the toy is also reinforcing to the parent because the child is not longer heard crying.

2. A child may aggress to escape or avoid something unpleasant to them (asked to do something they don’t want to do)

An example of this might be if a parent asks a child to pick up his toys and go to bed. The child may act out because this is something he or she might not want to do. If the demand is revoked and the child is allowed to continue playing and stay awake, the child thinks “I don’t want to do this, and if I throw a tantrum, it makes you stop”. In addition, removing the demand to avoid the tantrum is reinforcing to the parents.

3. A child may aggress to produce self-stimulation

In some cases, aggression may also serve as a form of self-stimulation in which the action just “feels good” to the child.

For example, a child may bang his chin with his fist frequently when alone. In this case, the child may have too few appropriate leisure skill activities, such as appropriately play with toys and other activities. Instead, the child engages in self-stimulation as a form of entertainment and serves as an enjoyable sensation the child can produce alone.

4. In other cases, the aggression may be due to a medical condition in which a medical Dr. should be consulted and the child treated. Medical issues should also be ruled out first.

Once aggressive behaviors are occurring frequently, they can be difficult to decrease right away. This is where we can help! Here are some tips to help reduce aggression or other forms of problem behavior.

1. Identify the cause or function of the behavior. (Be sure to rule out any medical reasons first) Is the child engaging in problem behavior to:

• Access a toy, activity, or attention?
• Escape or avoid something he or she doesn’t want to do?
• Produce self-stimulation because the aggressive behavior “feels good”?
• Possible medical issue?

2. Stop reinforcing the behavior. If a child cries or hits because he wants a toy when at the store, then don’t give the child the toy. If he cries or hits because he doesn’t want to stop playing and go to bed, don’t allow him to keep playing and avoid going to bed. If he is engaging in the behavior to produce self-stimulation, teach a “time and a place” for the behavior or find another item or activity the child can do instead which looks more appropriate but produces the same desired “feel”.

3. Teach your child more appropriate ways to communicate. For example, begin to teach your child to ask for a toy or activity using ASL sign, words, or even by pointing through the use of a picture system.

Parents can consult an experienced BCBA to help identify reduce aggression and teach more appropriate replacement behaviors. A BCBA can help by performing a functional assessment to identify the function(s) of behavior and design an individualized behavior plan to help.

“What is Success” (Guest Post)

What is “Success”?

Throughout my experiences I have had the privilege to observe and assist many children with varying skill levels. During my first interaction with the kids I usually try to just hang out and see what skills they currently have. It almost always surprises me when I notice a kid (and these are children of ALL ages) that has little to no functional communication skills, i.e. children without the ability to request desired items (through sign language, vocal language, PECs, etc). Then I take notice to the types of activities that people want to teach these kids: games, puzzles, identifying number, money, and more. This got me to thinking…by what means are we measuring “success” for our kiddos with intellectual disabilities? Does “success” mean the ability to complete a puzzle? Is it the ability to sit quietly at a table while the teacher talks? What about the ability to color within the lines?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) focuses on behaviors that are socially significant in an individual’s life. We, as behavior analysts, choose to teach skills that will directly impact the quality of life for that child. So, with this being said, the next question then becomes: What skills are most important for this child? It has been my experience that the skills that benefit my kids the most are… MANDS, this is the ability to request preferred items and activities. Could you imagine a life without being able to communicate with others your top 3 wants (for me that is chocolate, bread, and cheese). For our kids with no functional communication, they currently do not have the ability to tell others what they want. This is why, for these kids, our priority needs to be teaching them to ask for these items. Because, in their lives, I am fairly certain requesting cheese, bread, and chocolate (if it were me) would be more of a success then learning to complete a puzzle.

– Danielle Pelz

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Myths Regarding Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is often misunderstood as a term that is associated with punishment. Because the word “negative” is used, people often think this term means something “bad”. However, this is far from true. Don’t let the “negative” part fool you. Reinforcement is actually a good thing.

In “technical terms” a reinforcer is the process in which a stimulus is added following a behavior and it increases the likelihood that behavior will occur again in the future. In “simple terms”, it means you do something and because something pleasant becomes of it, you are more likely to do it again. Reinforcers are also defined by their effect they have on behavior. Therefore, it has to increase the likelihood you are going to behave that way again in future. A person engages in negative reinforcement if they do something that helps remove or avoid something unpleasant. An example would be teaching a child to say “stop” instead of hitting a peer in an attempt to block the peer from taking a toy away. If the child begins to say “stop” in a similar situation this would show the behavior of saying “stop” increased.

Another reason negative reinforcement has become a term associated as meaning something “bad” is because we often don’t realize that we are using negative reinforcement when we shouldn’t. Using negative reinforcement to stop problem behavior can cause problem behavior to increase. Giving a child a piece of candy to make him stop crying would be considered negative reinforcement if you find yourself doing this a lot more in order to make the crying stop. Even though it makes the child stop crying in that moment, it also teaches the child crying results in something favorable. Therefore they will be more likely keep crying often and I am sure that is not the desired result 😉 In a situation like this, it is best problem behavior is never rewarded.

By understanding how the principle of negative reinforcement works, you can learn to use so it helps you instead of having it work against you.