Many children find it very hard to hear the word “no” or to accept when they cannot have access to items or activities that they would like. For parents this can be stressful and exhausting. For children on the autistic spectrum, this is a skill that often needs to be specifically taught.
If it is not taught, it can become a significant barrier to the child’s learning. The aim is for the child to accept when something is not available, and perhaps accept an alternative. This is the behaviour we teach as a replacement behaviour for the crying, kicking etc that may have occurred previously.
It can be daunting when the idea of teaching this skill is brought up, especially if it has never been tackled with the child before. Parent’s often say “but I always give in”. That’s completely understandable as a parent, but once a programme of accepting no is in place, it is important to avoid “giving in”. So if you are not ready to start, don’t. This can be a difficult process and requires time and consistency for long term success so it is important to wait until everyone is ready.
When you are ready, follow the tips below. They will help to ease you in, and help you start practicing say “no”.
1. Make a list of things that your child likes with what is most preferred being at the top of the list and going down in ‘value’. When we first start teaching this, we don’t want to say no to all of the favourite items and activities. Start with items lower down the hierarchy
2. Practice with a variety of different items so it is not always the same item being denied, and so the child never knows when you will say yes, and when you will say no
3. Say yes to about 80-85% of the child’s requests
4. When you start teaching this, always offer an alternative, more motivating item. This way, accepting that something isn’t available results in access to something better
5. Use a variety of language and offer alternatives. It is often beneficial to avoid saying the word “no” but instead to say things such as “I don’t have that” or “I’m not sure where that is” and immediately offer something else. Have the alternative items ready to give to the child as you are saying it, so it would look like this:
- Child: Asks for something
- Adult: “I’m not sure where that is, would you like ___instead?” (this item should be something that the child REALLY likes)
6. If they accept the alternative item offered, go ahead and give it to them. If they don’t accept the alternative item, avoid giving access to either item. Ignore problem behaviour (as long it is not harmful to themselves or others)
7. Bear in mind that the problem behaviour may get worse before it gets better. If the child is used to always having what they ask for, this is likely to come as a surprise. Stick with it, it will work, and it will get better.
8. The future steps for this are to fade the use of the alternative, so eventually you can just say things such as “not right now” and also to practice with any items or activities, despite how favoured they are.
If you have questions or worries about any of these steps, please ask. We’d love to explain it to you in more depth.
We feel that this is a really important skill to learn. Typically developing children learn this skill without being directly taught, so when they are older and in the supermarket, they ask for chocolate, if they are told no, they accept it. This is exactly where we want to help families get to who have children with autism. It is a longer road, but it is achievable. I’m not saying we will always say no – we won’t. That’s why we teach communication in the first place – so that they can express their wants and needs, and have them met. It’s just that in real life, for all of us, sometimes it just isn’t possible to have what we want, when we want it.