If you are a parent or caregiver of an autistic child, managing your child’s behavior at home can often pose some challenges. You likely don’t have years of experience as a behavior analyst or special education teacher. You may find yourself resorting to the same traditional parenting approach your parents used or that you’ve used with your other non-autistic children. And if that’s the case, you may not be reaching the level of success in managing challenging behavior that you’d like.
I had a traditional parenting mindset with my older three non-autistic children. I probably could have done better, but we managed and they are all happy, healthy, functioning adults. However, when my youngest autistic son was born, I had to toss everything I knew about parenting out the window. Why? Because it wasn’t working.
After a learning curve of several years through working with my son’s behavior analysts, special education teachers, and some good ole fashion trial and error, our home is a much happier place. And I’ve identified the three positive behavior strategies that work best with my son. And, here’s a hot tip: These positive behavior strategies work well with all children!
So keep reading to learn 3 simple positive behavior strategies (plus a bonus tip) you can implement in your home today!
Strategy 1: Tell, Don’t Ask
Tell, Don’t Ask is an easy-to-use strategy that simply means rather than asking your child to do something you expect, just tell them. It sounds very straightforward, right? But so many times we ask our children rhetorical questions such as: Are you ready for dinner? Do you want to go to Grandma’s? When in fact, what we mean is: It is time for dinner. We are going to Grandma’s. But since you asked your child may think there is an option to say no. We think we are being polite, when in fact, we are confusing our child.
Tell, Don’t Ask Tips
- Make the request within close proximity of your child using as few words as possible.
- If your child can, make eye contact.
- If your child can, have them repeat the request back.
Tell, Don’t Ask Examples
- “Take your plate to the sink. What do you need to do?”
- “Put your shoes on. What do you need to put on?”
- “In two minutes, it’s time for dinner. What is it time for in two minutes?”
Strategy 2: Using Choices
Everyone loves choices! But for our autistic kiddos, choices can fill a significant role in the success of everyday routines. If your child resists bathtime, and you ask, “Do you want your ocean animal bath toys or your mermaid bath toys?” as long as both are highly preferred, you just exponentially increased the chance of your child happily hopping into the tub.
Using Choices Tips
- Limit choices to two or three.
- Both choices should be acceptable to the parent, with at least one choice highly preferred by the child.
- Be consistent. Do not allow the child to add an option.
Using Choices Examples
- “Do you want soup or a sandwich for lunch?”
- “Do you want me to pause the iPad or do you want to pause it?”
- “Do you want to shower now or in two minutes?”
Strategy 3: First/Then (Also called the PreMack Principle or Grandma’s Rule)
The First/Then strategy is when you pair a non-preferred activity with a preferred activity. In other words, you instruct your child to do something you want them to do, with the promise that after they complete the task, they get to do something they want to do. Remember Grandma telling you first eat your dinner, then you can have dessert? Grandma knew what she was doing because you likely finished your meal knowing a sweet treat would follow!
- The non-preferred activity (what you want them to do) is always completed first.
- Never negotiate the order.
- Use a visual First/Then board with images of the tasks for younger, limited verbal, or preverbal children.
- “First bath, then story.”
- “First pick up toys, then iPad.”
- “In two minutes, first wash hands, then snack.”
Bonus Tip! Using Timers
Timers are my favorite tool for helping my six-year-old autistic son transition between preferred and non-preferred activities and transitions of all types. And timers can be combined with each of the strategies above as illustrated by each third example. If you use timers on a consistent basis, it will become second nature for both you and your child.
- Keep the time-frame short. Just long enough to come to a natural stopping point, not to start anything new. We typically use between 2 and 5 minutes.
- If they can, have your child set the timer, start it, and place it where they can see it.
- Do not negotiate more time after the timer goes off.
- “In two minutes, put your shoes on. What do you need to put on in two minutes?” (Timer + Tell, Don’t Ask)
- “In two minutes, do you want to read Green Eggs and Ham or Hop or Pop?” (Timer + Choices)
- “In two minutes, put your toys in the bin, then we will go to the park.” (Timer + First/Then)
Raising an autistic child often takes a shift in mindset. Punishment, time-out, spanking, and other traditional parenting strategies may not be effective and in some cases can lead to worsening behavior. But positive techniques, such as the simple strategies above, used with consistency can help reduce challenging behaviors. And, you can start using them at home today!