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How to Use Positive Language With Kids With Autism

by Cara Batema

For many parents, it is easy to fall into a rut filled with the phrase "don’t do that," especially if your child’s behavior becomes routinely difficult to manage. Because children with autism often struggle in areas of language and social interaction, they might engage in repetitive, inappropriate behaviors like hitting or spitting. With such behavior, it becomes almost second-nature for a parent to use negative phrases, such as "stop it" or "don't", instead of positive ones. Because using positive language often translates into positive behaviors, it is important for the parents of autistic children to embrace positive language when trying to curb negative behaviors or trying to produce positive ones.

According to HelpGuide.org, a website filled with resources for mental and emotional health, parents of autistic children should purposefully 'catch' their children exhibiting positive behaviors. For instance, say "I love how you said please when you asked for juice!" or "You helped me so much when you picked the right kind of grapes at the grocery store. Thank you!" Such phrases that highlight positive behavior -- and especially specific actions -- become powerful in the world of a child, especially for one who naturally struggles with vocabulary or social interaction.

Give calm reminders when your child engages in inappropriate behaviors. Avoid using harsh tones, even when you must be firm. For example, if your child starts shouting, say, “Remember your indoor voice,” in a calm tone rather than, “Be quiet!” or “Stop shouting!” A child will naturally respond more positively to a reminder that teaches than to a phrase that demands.

Be specific when you praise your child. Instead of saying "good job," describe to your child what exactly he has done to elicit your feedback. Be specific about the task he has completed -- "Good job tying your shoes!" This approach gives your child a logical explanation for behavior he can understand, and it gives him a way to understand exactly what he did well -- something that will help him feel accomplished, even with the smallest task.

Avoid labeling your child’s behavior as bad. Instead of saying, “It’s bad to throw crayons across the room,” say, “Crayons are not for throwing. What do we use crayons for?” This approach teaches your child to consider another option rather than eliciting a reflex brought on by your command; in essence, you are teaching decision-making strategies that will help him with critical thinking and with independence later in life. According to the Newbridge Educate Together National School, this approach also communicates respect to your child, because you are communicating that you have a confidence in his abilities to make appropriate choices.

Avoid long-winded directions or complicated language. Speaking with as few words as possible or with a simple sentence structure will help ensure your child with autism understands you.

Use a “next time” saying to give your child more ideal options for behavior, as suggested by Newbridge Educate Together National School. For example, say, “Next time, please use words to tell me you’re angry.” This approach is a positive alternative to the word "don't" and it also outlines in a concrete, easy-to-understand manner what you expect of your child.

Tip

  • You convey a positive message to your child with your tone of voice -- and even though language might not be your child’s strong point, he can likely tell when you are frustrated, angry or exasperated. Speaking to your child calmly and politely will model that positive behavior for your child.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

Photo Credits

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