How To Get Your High-Functioning Autistic Child To Listen To You

You've got something to say to your child, or there is something you want him to do – or stop doing. But, as all children with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's tend to do, he is fixated on a particular object or activity (e.g., television, computer, video game, etc.). But before your message can get through, you have to get his attention.

Capturing your youngster's focus can be easier said than done, especially if it's already aimed at something else. Shouting sometimes seems like the only way to get him to listen, but it can also raise the emotional temperature in the room to the point where he is less able to attend (and if you shout a lot, he has probably learned to tune you out anyway).

Fortunately, there are better ways to get your child’s attention. And you will want to have several strategies at your disposal to keep your approach fresh and “attention-getting.” 

Here are 25 such strategies to add to your parenting toolbox:

1. "Can you focus on the sound of my voice?" I asked my autistic grandson one evening, and sure enough, he did just that. Sometimes, the most direct and obvious method actually works.

2. Ask your youngster to repeat the request back to you. If he can't, it's too long or too complicated.

3. Before giving your youngster directions, squat to his eye level and engage him in eye-to-eye contact to get his attention. Teach him how to focus: "Mark, I need your eyes." ...or "I need your ears." Be sure not to make your eye contact so intense that your youngster perceives it as controlling rather than connecting.

4. Close the discussion. If a matter is really closed to discussion, say so. "I'm not changing my mind about this. Sorry." You'll save wear and tear on both you and your youngster. Reserve your "I mean business" tone of voice for when you do.

5. Doing something silly (e.g., making funny noises, jumping up and down, yodeling, speaking Pig Latin, etc.) will make your youngster take notice, laugh, and focus on your ridiculous self.

6. Don't ask a leading question when a negative answer is not an option. Rather than "Will you please pick up your coat?" Just say, "Pick up your coat, please."

7. Give advance notice. "We are leaving soon. Say bye-bye to the computer.”

8. If your youngster's off on a tangent, try talking about something completely different. If you can get that train of thought to jump tracks, it may slow down enough to let you on.

9. Keep it simple. Use short sentences with one-syllable words. Listen to how children communicate with each other and take note. When your youngster shows that glazed, disinterested look, you are using words that are too big – and you are no longer being understood.

10. Legs first, mouth second. Instead of yelling, "Turn off the computer, it's time for dinner!" walk into the room where your youngster is using the computer, join in with his interests for a few minutes, and then, during a break in the action, have him turn off the computer. Going to your youngster conveys you're serious about your request. Otherwise kids interpret this as a mere preference.

11. Let your youngster complete the thought. Instead of "Don't leave your mess piled up," try: "Max, think of where you want to store your music CDs." Letting the youngster fill in the blanks is more likely to create a lasting lesson.

12. Make a secret signal with your youngster that means "Listen up!" Tap your ear, tap your mouth, or wave frantically. Visuals can be more attention-getting than audios for children on the autism spectrum.

13. Make physical contact when you want your youngster to pay attention (e.g., a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back, a quick hug, etc.). That makes it clear (better than words from afar) that you need to connect.

14. Offer your youngster a reward if he hears you out (not something expensive). Children will often work for something unbelievably tiny. You could tell your youngster a secret after he's listened to your message, then just whisper "I love you!" in his ear. 

15. Reinforce the desired behaviors positively and give consequences to those who choose not to listen. Be consistent with how you give consequences and always give only one warning. Over time children begin to see this as routine and will predict the outcome of their choices.

16. Settle the listener. Before giving your directive, restore emotional equilibrium, otherwise you are wasting your time. Nothing sinks in when a youngster is an emotional wreck.

17. Shouting is emotionally overwhelming, but raising your voice doesn't have to be. Try addressing your “attention-wandering” son or daughter like you would your “attention-wandering” puppy dog – with a sharp, but friendly, tone.

18. Something that makes your youngster jump (e.g., a clap of the hands, a flicker of lights) can break attention from one thing and focus it on you. You can take it from there.

19. Stay brief by using the “one-sentence rule.” Put the main directive in the opening sentence. The longer you ramble, the more likely your youngster is to become “parent-deaf.” Too much talking is a very common mistake when dialoging about an issue. It gives the youngster the feeling that you're not quite sure what it is you want to say. If he can keep you talking, he can get you sidetracked. 

20. Talk the youngster down. The louder your youngster yells, the softer you respond. Let your youngster ventilate while you interject timely comments: "I understand" or "Can I help?" Sometimes just having a caring listener available will wind down the tantrum. If you come in at his level, you have two tantrums to deal with. Be the adult for him.

21. Threats and judgmental openers are likely to put the youngster on the defensive. "You" messages make a youngster clam up. "I" messages are non-accusing. Instead of "You'd better do this..." or "You must...," try "I would like...." or "I am so pleased when you..." Instead of "You need to clear the table," say "I need you to clear the table."

22. Try whispering. Your youngster may be intrigued enough by this hard-to-hear approach that he'll turn his attention to it. Saves your voice, too.

23. Use rhyme rules. "If you hit, you must sit." Get your youngster to repeat them.

24. When your youngster's fixated on something (television, computer, video game), step right in front of that object of affection and insert yourself into the line of vision.

25. Write it. Reminders can evolve into nagging so easily, especially for kids and teens who feel being told things puts them in the slave category. Without saying a word, you can communicate anything you need said. Talk with a pad and pencil. Leave humorous notes for your youngster. Then sit back and watch it happen.

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

Best Comment:

Hey Mark, Our son was just diagnosed with Aspy in his 27th year of life! All the years of wondering WHAT was causing him to act like he did...differant from the other kids, yet as bright as a star! He also has 99% ADHD!!! So, it has been extremely difficult until the Aspy dx. Now I realize WHY he acts like he does and I can now respond accordingly...with love, compassion and patience! From a rebellious life on the streets in his younger years, he dropped out of school in 9th grade! And is now in his 2nd year of tech college, on the Dean's list and excelling in Electronics! we are pleased to see your links on here! What a relief to know that we, as parents, are not alone! Robin 


JillR said...

This is really very helpful, thank you!

Anonymous said...

I am an Autistic person. Forcing eye contact "eye to eye" is never okay. Many Autistic people, including children, eye contact makes them very uncomfortable. Also touching to get their attention isn't okay either unless we've shown you that we are okay with touching. We hear you. We don't need a reward for complying. We are not dogs.

Anonymous said...

What would you do in the situation if you’re late for work and your child goes into shut down cause he wants to stay home?

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