When You Ask a Child on the Autism Spectrum to Stop What He or She Is Doing

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I like to try to explain things by using bodily functions as examples. Because often with people on the spectrum, some of the things we do seem less important to others. But for us, it’s a need, not a want.

Imagine you really had to go to the bathroom, and you finally get to go, but then someone makes you stop and go with them to the grocery store instead. Or go eat lunch. Or say it’s time to do dishes.

That would seem like a form of punishment or torture, right? Not only would it make you upset, but it would make you feel incredibly uncomfortable. The whole time you’re supposed to be doing this other activity, and all you’re going to think about in the back of your mind is going back to the bathroom and finishing your business. You might even plead with the person who made you stop!

“Please!? I’m almost done. Just a few more minutes. I’ll be quick. I’ll come right back and go with you…”

Now imagine a little kid, one who hasn’t had as much practice with social cues or “appropriateness,” or who needs a little more help in areas you might do quite well in (after all, adults have had more practice). Imagine that he’s watching cartoons (or playing with Legos, or whatever), and you need to leave to run an errand or it’s time for dinner, etc.

You tell him it’s time to go. To stop what he’s doing and come with you. To some on the spectrum, that can be a really hard thing to do. Their brains and their bodies might be telling them it’s not time yet. They’re in the middle of something. They can’t leave yet, they’re not finished.

So you get a little more stern: “I said let’s go!”

It registers that they’re going to have to leave before they’re finished. So they get angry or upset or start crying. Maybe they plead with you: “Please! Just a little bit longer! It’s not over yet! I’m not done!”

To you, this may seem like defiance (and hey, I don’t know your kid — maybe it is), but more than likely it’s because they didn’t have enough time to prepare for what was going to happen. They didn’t have time to finish what they started.

Which is why transitions are a big thing within the autism community — transition songs, transition actions or “warnings.” I know some people who use timers, and some who sing the clean-up song while they’re cleaning, then they’re able to use it as a warning. They can start singing it in the background while they’re playing to let them know what’s to come. 

It’s also one of the reasons routine can be such a big deal. With routine, they know what’s coming. They know they have enough time to finish their show, because every time it ends, that’s when we do whatever comes next.

So, the point I’m trying to make with this is — remember to try to be patient.

Nine times out of 10, they’re probably not trying to give you a hard time. They’re the ones having a hard time and communicating and expressing that stress or frustration in the only way they know how.

Instead of getting upset, try to find ways to help them through it.

At bedtime, we do the exact same thing every night. We never leave the house after that bedtime routine should be started. We never stay out longer than we should. Company isn’t allowed over when we start that routine (unless I know it’s not going to affect them specifically). Because their calm, happiness and understanding is important to me. And I don’t want to cause more stress and strain on them or me. Sure, it means we might not get to do some fun things, but until they understand better and can cope better, this is what we’ll do.

I suggest really paying attention. Are there situations that could be helped by making sure your kids (or grandkids or students) understand what’s coming next and better preparing them for it? So their heads and bodies aren’t shouting, “What are you doing? We’re not done! Don’t leave!”

Maybe wait until the credits are rolling to leave, or ask to help them finish their Lego masterpiece so they’ll come do the dishes.

Each kid is unique and may need something completely different than the next in order to succeed in life. And that’s totally OK. We just need to figure out what it is so we can help.

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