Learning how to cooperate with others is an important skill, but teaching this skill to children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be challenging. Luckily, there are many ways you can help your child with ASD develop more cooperative behaviour.

Why cooperation is important

Cooperative behaviour helps children succeed at school, in relationships with others and in extracurricular activities. It’s also important for a happy and harmonious life.

Cooperation involves several important skills like sharing, taking turns and following instructions from others. Children need these skills to communicate and get along with others in most social situations.

Why children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder can be uncooperative

Almost all children don’t do what they’re asked to do sometimes. But parents of children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find that their child’s lack of cooperation really interferes with everyday life.

Younger children with ASD, or those with limited language, often have difficulty understanding instructions, which can make it harder for them to cooperate. This can happen in the following situations:

  • There are too many instructions – children with ASD often need a little extra time to process what you’re asking them to do and can feel overwhelmed if they’re asked to do too many things at once.

  • The instructions are too hard – sometimes children don’t have the right skills to do what they’re asked to do. For example, if a child doesn’t know how to button her shirt, she might have trouble if she’s asked to get dressed.

  • The instructions are too vague – children might have trouble cooperating if it isn’t clear what they’re supposed to do. For example, ‘Watch your shoes on the couch, Farhan’ or ‘Do you want to go to bed, Wei Zhen?’. It’s best to be as clear as possible.

Children with ASD typically have difficulty with social interactions and communication. So they might be uncooperative because they haven’t learned the appropriate behaviour for different social situations. Or they might not be able to manage the strong or difficult feelings – like anger, frustration or anxiety – that can come with being asked to do something you don’t want to do.

Children with little or no language can easily get frustrated if they can’t verbally express their feelings – this is true for children with and without ASD.

Children with ASD are sometimes uncooperative when they’re asked to do something they don’t like because of sensory issues – for example, going into a noisy shop or eating foods with particular textures.

Children with ASD can have rigid, fixed ideas and behaviour that can interfere with their ability to take instructions. They can also find it hard to shift their attention from one thing to another. This might look like your child is being uncooperative when your child just needs time and help to move on to a new activity or follow a new instruction.

Finally, uncooperative behaviour sometimes lets children get out of situations they don’t like. When children with ASD don’t want to do something – like packing away toys or doing household chores – it might understandably be easier for tired or frustrated parents to let them get out of it, rather than forcing the issue.

Helping your child with autism spectrum disorder be more cooperative: tips

The strategies outlined below are designed to strengthen your child’s cooperative spirit and head off difficult situations before they come up.

Setting limits

Setting limits means sending a firm message about what your child can and can’t do – for example, bedtime on a school night is 8 pm. Children often try to challenge the limits that grown-ups set – this is just part of being a child. But limits help keep children safe and are important in cutting down on uncooperative behaviour.

When you’re setting limits, following through on your expectations will show your child that you mean what you say.

For example, you start your bedtime routine – cleaning teeth, reading books and so on – at 7.30 pm, so that children are in bed at 8 pm. But if expectations are inconsistent, children are more likely to test or ignore limits. For example, if it’s 8 pm some nights but whenever at other times, your child might lobby for ‘whenever’ every night.

Setting limits doesn’t mean overwhelming your child with too many rules – our article on family rules explains how to make rules about the really important things in your family life.

Giving effective instructions

The way you give instructions strongly influences whether your child will cooperate. You can make your instructions more effective by:

  • getting your child’s attention

  • making sure you’re giving an instruction, not a request

  • being clear about what needs to be done

  • making sure your child can do what you’re asking

  • making the instruction positive – for example, ’Qing Xuan, walk when you’re inside’, rather than ’Don’t run, Qing Xuan’

  • following through on what you’ve asked.

It might help your child if you present things visually – for example, use a picture of hand-washing when you ask your child to wash his hands. It can also help to use clear, concise language with not too many words. Also give your child some time, perhaps 10 seconds, to process the instruction.

Offering choices

When children have choices, they learn to make decisions and think for themselves. Letting your child make some decisions, and praising responsible choices, will help to develop and strengthen your child’s self-esteem as well as her ability to cooperate.

A good way to give your child choices is to offer a limited range of options – two is good. For example, ‘Chen Kuo, it’s lunchtime. Would you like a cheese sandwich or a ham sandwich?’. Or ‘Wei Zhen, it’s time to get dressed. Would you like to wear this skirt or these jeans?’.

You can encourage your child to make limited choices every day – for example, what toys to play with, books to read, clothes to wear, snacks to eat, parks to play at, or projects to work on.

Three-step prompting

This is a simple strategy that can encourage cooperative behaviour by ensuring that your child will follow through on your instructions.

Step 1 is to give the instruction:

  • Say to your child, ‘Zhe Ming, wash your hands’. 

  • Give your child five seconds to follow through with this instruction. 

  • If your child cooperates, give enthusiastic praise and encouragement.

  • If your child doesn’t cooperate within five seconds, move to step 2. 

Step 2 is to give the instruction again and demonstrate the preferred behaviour to your child:

  • Say, ‘Zhe Ming, wash your hands’, and point or walk over to the sink.

  • If your child cooperates within five seconds, give lots of praise. 

  • If your child doesn’t cooperate within five seconds of your instruction and demonstration, move to step 3. 

Step 3 is to give the instruction again and use physical guidance:

  • Say, ‘Zhe Ming, wash your hands’, and use hand-over-hand guidance to wash your child’s hands. 

  • Don’t stop guiding your child until the instruction is complete.

There are a few things to remember with three-step prompting:

  • Repeat your instruction with every prompt. 

  • Steps 1 and 2 are never repeated more than once. 

  • Focus on the task – don’t talk about other things with your child. 

  • Give your child praise and encouragement when he cooperates. 

  • Don’t give praise and encouragement when you need to use physical guidance. 

Praise is an important part of three-step prompting and many other strategies to encourage good behaviour. Descriptive praise – when you tell your child exactly what you like about her behaviour – works best of all. An example of using descriptive praise to encourage cooperation might be, ‘Rahidah, well done! You put your toys away’. 

Examine the environment

Try to think of the situations in which your child is consistently uncooperative.

You might find that your child is uncooperative if you go out to eat, but is fine at home at mealtimes. It might be that he’s used to a particular routine at home, or prefers to eat from his own special plate. Or you might find that your child is usually uncooperative only in crowded, noisy environments, perhaps because he’s more sensitive to sounds than other children.

There might be things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable, and therefore more cooperative. These could include:

  • using your child’s comfort objects in situations where she’s uncooperative – for example, taking a special plate from home if you go out to eat

  • compromising between what you need to do and your child’s sensitivities – for example, going to the shopping centre at a quieter time of day.

Social Stories™

Social Stories™  explain social situations to children with ASD. You can write Social Stories™ to encourage appropriate skills and behaviour in situations where your child needs to cooperate, including washing hands, going shopping, packing away and so on.

Social Stories™ are particularly helpful for children who are more anxious than other children and prefer to know what’s going to happen.

Using technology 

If your child has limited language, technology can help him cooperate by making it easier for him to communicate. For example, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses pictures, symbols, words or photographs that represent tasks, actions or objects. You can use PECS on tablets or paper cards. 

Being mindful

Mindfulness means having a clear, calm mind that’s focused on what’s happening in the present moment. You can help your child to be cooperative by staying relaxed when asking her to do things, and by really focusing on giving her an effective instruction. This might need practice, but the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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