Autism and Non-Compliance: Teaching Kids with ASD to Follow Directions
One of the most challenging parts of parenthood is getting kids to do what we, as parents, think they should do. This is even more difficult when your child has a disability or disorder which makes following directions difficult, or which impacts executive functioning skills like time management, independence, and organization.
Non-Compliance is Important, Too
Although it is very important for children, including those with autism, to learn to follow directions and comply with what they are told to do, it is worth noting that sometimes it is appropriate for kids (and adults) NOT to be compliant. For instance, if a child is being manipulated by a stranger to get into their vehicle, or if someone is attempting to engage in inappropriate behavior with a child, the child should be able to stand up for themselves and say “no” or to leave the situation. There are also other times, that aren’t so severe or inappropriate, in which a child could be “non-compliant.” If a peer wants to take a teens cell phone from them, the individual should be able to refuse to give up their phone as this is a personal boundary that is acceptable.
Even though noncompliance is an important skill, compliance is also an important skill for children to develop. Compliance is important throughout one’s childhood as well as through adulthood.
Autism and Compliance
Many children with autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with compliance.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term “compliance” means “the act or process of complying to a desire, demand, proposal, or regimen or to coercion.”
Given that compliance has to do with completing what is requested or expected by another person, compliance can be challenging for children with autism. The core characteristics of autism spectrum disorder have to do with deficits or challenges in social communication as well as having restricted or repetitive behaviors. These traits of autism can make it more likely that a child will be non-compliant.
Some possible reasons that a child with autism might be non-compliant include having difficulty processing information that is being communicated by another person, challenges with adjusting one’s behavior to suit the context of the situation (such as being calm and having a quiet voice at the library), or difficulty understanding how their own behavior might impact someone else.
Also, a child’s stereotyped or repetitive behaviors might interfere with their ability to comply with what they are being told to do. They also might be hyper-focused on something which increases the difficulty of following directions or transitioning to a new activity -- especially one that they don’t prefer to do. Also, some tasks that are asked of them might be very overwhelming and cause a lot of stress, anxiety, or frustration.
Strategies to Increase Compliance
Let’s look at some tips for increasing compliance in children with autism. How can parents get their child to follow directions and improve their child’s ability to do what is expected of them?
Using Positive Reinforcement
First, it is extremely important to clarify what you want your child to do. Be clear about what behavior you want your child to do. Then, consider how you can use positive reinforcement to increase how often your child does that behavior.
Positive reinforcement is when your child experiences something after they engage in a behavior and then that behavior happens more often in the future. This could be a sticker that is given when your child complies with a specific direction or giving your child praise (like saying, “Good job!”) after your child does something you want them to do. You might also offer your child a preferred activity or item after they do the task or behavior that you wanted them to do.
Make it Easier to Comply
Another strategy to increase compliance is to make it easier for your child to do what you want them to do. An example of this could be if you want your child to do their homework, break the homework down into smaller chunks. You could ask your child to do two math problems (instead of all 20 on the worksheet). Then, provide positive reinforcement and give them a break from homework. You can work up to getting your child to do more of the worksheet as they comply with doing smaller portions of the homework assignment.
It is also helpful to consider how you can teach your child to self-regulate -- how to manage their own behavior. If you want your child to comply with certain tasks or to meet certain expectations, you can implement different strategies to help them be more independent with these types of things.
For example, if your child doesn’t brush their teeth or clean their room, you might create a checklist that your child must follow each day. They can look at the list and check off the items as they complete the tasks. Be sure to provide positive reinforcement for your child when they complete the checklist.
You might also teach your child coping skills for when they get overwhelmed or frustrated. Some coping skills that might help your child include taking deep breaths, asking for a break, and having a fidget toy.
Break Tasks into Smaller Parts
It is important to consider your child’s individual needs and abilities. If you want your child to take care of their dishes after dinner, would it help if you broke this activity into small steps - such as scrape the leftover food into the trash, put the plate in the sink, put the cup on the counter (or whatever steps apply for your child and your family)?
Some children need tasks broken down into more manageable steps while others can process and comply with more general directions.
Learning to Take No for an Answer
Teaching your child to take no for an answer can also be helpful for decreasing non-compliance and increasing compliance. If your child learns to behave appropriately when you tell them “no”, they will have less challenging behaviors and be more likely to meet your expectations.
There are many strategies you can use to help your child with this skill. One thing you can do is to offer an alternative. For instance, you could tell your child, “No, you can’t use your tablet, but you can color or play with blocks.”
Another strategy to help your child behave in an acceptable way when you tell them “no” is to provide a prompt (which means you will help them in certain ways) to do a more appropriate behavior.
An example of this strategy would be if your child is running in the grocery store, and you want them to walk. You could say, “You need to walk.” and take their hand and either hold their hand or place their hand on the cart and remind them to stay by you. This combines a verbal and physical prompt. Then, quickly provide praise and possibly another reward for walking which is the differential reinforcement part of the strategy.
Teaching compliance can be tricky, even for caregivers of neurotypical children. For kids with autism, it can be especially hard to follow instructions and do things that they do not feel the need to. The strategies mentioned in this article can help address a lot of the challenges associated with non-compliance in children with ASD.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
Fischetti AT, Wilder DA, Myers K, Leon-Enriquez Y, Sinn S, Rodriguez R. An evaluation of evidence-based interventions to increase compliance among children with autism. J Appl Behav Anal. 2012 Winter;45(4):859-63. doi: 10.1901/jaba.2012.45-859. PMID: 23322942; PMCID: PMC3545511.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Compliance definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compliance
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Complying definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/complying