Don’t Use “Don’t” When Speaking to Those on the Autism Spectrum

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Neurotypicals have a tendency to frame directions by telling someone what not to do.  They might say things like: “Don’t talk” or “Don’t fidget.” When they’re asked what they want for dinner they might say, “Not chicken”. When soothing someone who is upset they say, “Don’t worry”.

This tendency can be frustrating for people that have Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. “Not” and “Don’t” can be difficult to conceptualize. First, they need to picture the action or thing: talking, fidgeting, worrying, or chicken. Those words are then mentally crossed out and the focus moves to “not” or “don’t”. Putting the action or thing together with the negating word can take some time to figure out, especially when language processing is difficult. When people that have ASD hear “not” or “don’t” they usually respond by doing exactly what they are being asked not to do. For example, “Don’t talk,” leads to more talking.  “Don’t fidget” results in fidgeting! “Don’t worry” can lead a person to wonder what they should worry about, or cause them to worry more. And guess what you’re having for dinner when you say, “not chicken”?

Neurotypical people respond with annoyance, and possibly anger, that directions are apparently ignored.

It is far more effective to say what you want, e.g. “Be quiet, please.” “Hold still for the picture.” “Can I help you make fish or beef for dinner?” (I happen to believe if you’re going to complain about what’s being made for dinner you should take part in the preparation) and “It’s OK. You know what to do.”

So, next time you are giving a direction to an individual with Autism, try stating what you want and see what happens.

Rebecca J. Weaver is a Certified Autism Specialist at Independent with Autism, working to empower individuals with ASD. Looking for better ways to communicate? Check out IndependentwithAutism.com for more information.

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