When a child “doesn’t listen”

Every individual has the drive to learn and succeed, so if your child is not following through on a request made of them,  stop and assess whether this is truly willful or because there may be a missing skill set needed to make the necessary connections. It doesn’t matter how great of an incentive you give someone, if what you are asking them to do is beyond their capabilities at that time, they will not succeed. The experience will further leave both a parent and child feeling frustrated and dejected. It is not always easy to see all aspects of a child’s abilities. Individuals with autism can have areas in which they excel beyond their typically developing peers. It is easy to expect that a child who has receptive and expressive language will follow through on an instruction given to them. However, at the time the instruction is given, a child may be experiencing sensory overload from the sights and sounds of a particular environment. They may interpret what you have said to them literally and not take action in the manner you intended. They may not have the self-awareness, capacity for assertion, and vocabulary to express that they do not understand or are having difficulty doing what you have asked of them. Without the necessary ability to verbalize how they are feeling and what they need, a child’s only means of communicating is through their behaviors.  A behavior may be externalized (i.e. verbal refusal, running away) or it could be internalized (i.e. withdrawal, non-responsiveness). You will maximize a child’s ability for following through on an instruction when a child appears calm, regulated, and attentive.

Some questions you may ask yourself the next time you ask a child to perform a task:

1. Do you have the child’s full attention before giving an instruction?
2. Is there any incentive or motivation for him/her to complete the task, other than because it is being asked of him/her?
3. Does your child appear to be overstimulated or conversely under-stimulated at the time when you are asking them to do something?
4. Are you giving an instruction that is clear, using only a few words that explicitly state what are you are requesting, and stating what you want rather than what you don’t want?
5. Are you providing your child with the scaffolding that may be needed to complete a task that is slightly beyond their current ability level?
6. If you are asking a child to stop engaging in a highly preferred activity to complete a less preferred or non-preferred ask, have you provided sufficient priming (i.e. a count down of how much more time they have on a preferred task before that have to make the transition)?
7. Does your child require a visual to understand that they can go back to a preferred activity once a less preferred activity is completed?
8. Does your child need the use of a timer to understand that a task with no natural end point, does in fact have a stopping point?
9. When your child does not listen or follow through, do you attend to her/his signals and behaviors to determine what he or she is trying to communicate to you?
10. Do you yourself model the skills that you expect your child to demonstrate (i.e. consistent follow through and responsiveness)?