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How I Make Following Instructions Fun for My Son on the Autism Spectrum

Last night my husband and I were so proud of ourselves! We were at Step 6: Read One Story on our son’s evening visual schedule. Recently we limited the number of books we read each night to one because that number had been slowly increasing over the last several weeks. “Please, just one more story,” had become our son’s favorite bedtime phrase and our least favorite!

Having the number on the schedule meant there was no option to negotiate more than one story. But being a smart little guy, he was determined to find a way around it. Halfway through one of us reading him a book, he would change his mind and want us to read a different book. If we didn’t, things would escalate quickly.

My son is 4 years old. He has ADHD and autism. He attends ABA therapy, both in-center and the therapist also works with him in our home. I have learned a lot over the years from his therapists. Most recently, I learned a new strategy to get my son to comply with a request or instruction — by making what we want him to do way more fun that what he wants to do.

It sounds so simple, and it is! Here are a few examples of how this strategy works.

Back to the storytime issue. A few nights ago, when my son ditched his first choice book a few pages in for a new story, my husband and I kept reading the first book.  But we amped it up a bit! The book was “Dr. Suess’s ABC,” so each time we said the upper case letters, we jumped up and shouted, “Big A!” Then when we said the lower case letters, we got low to the floor and whispered, “little c.” My son instantly gave up wanting a new story and jumped right in the middle of the action. A win for us!

Last night he did not want to get ready for his bath. So I just walked into the bathroom, began filling the tub, stepped into it and started racing his bath toy cars around the tub’s edge. He immediately got undressed and jumped in to join me! At that point, I thanked him (positive verbal reinforcement), and we continued playing (also reinforcement.)

Today when we got home from preschool, he was refusing to get out of the car. His behavior therapist had just arrived. She told him, “Hey, let’s go inside and find a ghost!” Pretending to find ghosts is a highly preferred activity for him. So upon hearing that, he quickly got out of the car and came inside to go ghost hunting with her.

It may seem we are using bribes and gimmicks to get him to listen, and partly, that is true. But he is also learning that following instructions is expected. He is learning to be proud of himself when he does what his parents, therapists and teachers ask of him.  He is learning that we care about him because rather than punishing him for not listening, we are creating scenarios where he can be successful, and we can praise him. We are meeting him where he is developmentally and offering him a bridge to success until he can meet proper expectations without it.

Parenting a child with autism can be challenging and exhausting, but it’s also creative, energizing and rewarding. Once my son is finally settled in for the night, I collapse on the couch, not an ounce of energy left. But this exhausted mama also has a smile on her face and joy in her heart!

Getty image by evgenyatamanenko.