I am often asked to help teachers figure out what to do when a student with ASD is displaying extreme non-compliance behaviors. The situations are typically described like this: Whenever the student is asked to engage in any schoolwork, the student refuses. Students may refuse by saying, "No!" "This is stupid!" "I'm not going to do it!" etc. Or the student may engage in stereotypic behaviors to refuse work, run away, destroy materials, engage in aggressive acts, or simply sit and do nothing. I am not going to claim to have the answer to this problem for every student because the functions for these behaviors may be different for individual students. However, I have observed a common theme. Some students with ASD have severe aversions to directives and to the feeling of being instructed. There can be many reasons for this. It could be because when they are talked to in a directive, stern matter their anxiety levels go up and cause refusal behaviors. Or, if they feel that they may not be able to do the work, they may avoid it. Or, if the work is not related to their interests, they may avoid it. Or, the level of social reciprocity required to receive and respond to instruction from teachers may cause anxiety and avoidance behaviors. Teachers can easily get into power struggles with students when extreme non-compliance behaviors are present. If this happens, the situation typically gets worse. Here is a plan you can try when dealing with students with ASD who are having difficulties complying with teacher instructions:
1. Assess the strengths and interests of the students: There is a strengths/interests assessment in my book Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom in Chapter 3 that you can use or create your own).
2. Plan only strengths and interest-based activities at first: This may be hard for teachers to swallow because they often feel like they have so much content and skills to teach that they cannot simply plan activities based on student strengths and interests. However, if the child is unwilling to do any work, something drastic needs to be done to begin teaching the student how to engage and comply with teacher instructions.
3. Be more responsive than directive when giving directions: If the student does not comply with simple directives such as, "Hang up your coat," "Take out your calculator," etc., it could be that it is the way the direction is given that is causing the noncompliance. To begin teaching the child how to respond to such directives, it is often helpful to change the way they are given. Refrain from using a very stern voice, do not say things such as, "You need to..." It may not be effective to use If-Then interventions because it can become a power struggle. Instead, you can phrase directions in a way that does not cause anxiety and/or you can give choices. Here are some examples, "When you are ready, put your coat on the hook or on the back of your chair." "You may want to use your calculator for this activity." "Which book would you like to read during read-aloud?" (student chooses) "Great, bring that book to the carpet."
4. Gradually add activities that are not necessarily interest-based: Once the child is able to comply with directions to engage in interest-based tasks, add one short activity each day that is not interest-based (just make sure it is strengths-based). Use shaping by adding more short non-interest based activities each day, gradually increase the length of these activities, and gradually add activities that are not purely strengths-based until the child is able to engage in such activities without non-compliant behaviors. However, approximately one-third to one-half of the activities should still be strengths/interest-based for the student.
5. Gradually teach the child to accept directives: One the child is able to respond to directives that are given in a responsive matter (as described in step 3), begin giving one or two directives a day that are desirable. For example, if the child loves the computer, give a directive such as, "Go to the computer." If the chid loves sitting in the bean bag chair, give a directive such as, "Go read your book in the bean bag chair." Once the child can respond to desirable directives gradually add in directives that are less and less desirable.
6. Follow the child's lead during preferred activities and gradually increase the child's ability to receive instruction: If the student refuses to receive instruction, teachers can address this by first following the child's lead during preferred activities. When doing so, teachers can simply get the child comfortable with their presence, then begin to make comments about what the child is doing, then begin to ask the child questions about what he/she is doing, then begin to "sneak in" instruction during the activity little by little. With this approach, teachers can reduce increases in anxiety and teach the child how to receive instruction and experience positive teacher-student interactions and success. Once the child is able to receive instruction during preferred activities in which he/she is already engaged, teachers can initiate instruction with a preferred activity in which the child is not currently engaged eventually adding in activities that are not necessarily preferred.
I know that this plan sounds like we are walking on eggshells around the child, but that is not the case. It is really a matter of being child-centered, meeting the child where he/she is, treating the child with respect, and using shaping to gradually increase the child's tolerance for teacher directives and for receiving instruction. In the end, the teachers should be able to be both responsive and directive, engage the student in preferred and non-preferred activities, and deliver instruction without noncompliant behaviors from the student.
Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA
Photo courtesy of LunahZon Photography