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Want to shift behavior in autism? Talk less!

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

Calm down. Clean your room. This is important. Don't forget. Contact your clients with our new offer. Send your mother a birthday card. Quiet down. Listen to me when I'm talking. Finish cleaning the garage. Get your reports in on time.

Why: Because you're making a scene. Because your room is trashed and we'll get bugs in there. Because if you forget, I'm going to have to make an extra trip to get the supplies, and I don't have time. Because part of your job is contacting clients, and the company relies on client follow-up to maintain sales. Because it's her birthday, and it's the least you can do. Because you'll wake the baby. Because we are in a relationship, and you aren't getting what I'm feeling. Because we can't park in the garage during the winter unless it is cleaned out. Because we all get written up if the work isn't completed on time.

It makes complete sense to tell someone what we want or need from them and to explain why. This is a strategy based on the belief that the person is not already showing the behavior because they don't know what's expected or they don't understand the reason behind the behavior. Totally logical. The only problem is that in the autism spectrum, it often doesn't work! So we make the statements more often and in a loud voice with more emotion.

We start to "chase" the person who isn't fully engaged in chores, or relationship, or work. What happens when we "chase" the individual on the autism spectrum? They are likely to get overwhelmed which leads to fight - flight - or freeze. And the task still doesn't get done!

Let's back up, regroup, start over -- A different approach might work better.

The reason that a reliance on reasoning doesn't work is because intellect is not in itself sufficient to change behavior. Autism is a neurologic condition of behavior. The person often "intellectually gets it" and even "intellectually or theoretically agrees." But 1) they may not know how to calm down or finish a multiple step project or increase their speed; 2) they may theoretically agree but not actually agree (e.g., "theoretically I want relationships, but when I'm actually in one, I don't enjoy it"); 3) or they may struggle with behavioral initiation (which is part of executive function - impacted by the center and front of the brain) -- the "getting going" part of behavior.

Once you have already explained what you need and why, don't waste energy repeating those things again and again. It is draining for you and feels like "chasing" to the person who wants to retreat or have their own space.

Instead, try focusing on strategy, not on reasoning.

1. Point something out: "Wow, you're really getting upset. I think your nervous system needs a break."

2. Focus on strategy: "What should you're strategy be to feel calmer. Do you want to try alone time? Do you think it would help to soak in the tub? How about lifting weights for a while?

3. Affirm the individual while also emphasizing the needs of others: "Your ability to feel heard and get your point across to me is really important, but so is your ability to stay centered and calm. And my need for a quiet space is important too. Let's figure out how to help you feel heard while we both stay calm."


1. Point something out: "Boy, cleaning out the garage is a huge chore. It really needs to get done before the winter hits."

2. Focus on strategy: "I'm wondering if we could focus on that front corner this week. What should the strategy be to get that corner done? I was thinking I would focus on cleaning out the spare bedroom for our holiday visitors. But we could swap those tasks if you want. Which would you rather do, and what kind of plan do you need to get it done?

3. Affirm the individual while also emphasizing the needs of others: "I wish this stuff didn't have to get done! Wouldn't that be nice? But the fact is that it does. Some things in life are optional, but when you own a house, this kind of stuff isn't. At least we can work together to get pieces done bit by bit."

When you feel tempted to remind and explain for the umpteenth time, don't! Focus on strategy instead.

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