How Words Can Reduce Behavior Breakdowns for Kids with ASD

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This is a guest post for parents by Karen Kabaki-Sisto, a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor.

Imagine that you suddenly awoke today in rural Peru with only the limited knowledge of Spanish from when you studied it many years ago in high school. Undoubtedly, you will be struggling to communicate with the locals in this region who do not speak English. As your words and gestures continue to get misinterpreted, your frustration, fear, exhaustion, and anger rises.

This is how your child with autism can feel every day – every minute, in fact – right here at home in the company of people who do speak the same language.  Even though your child with autism understands and expresses to some degree, it is not always easy.  Difficulty understanding and being understood can cause your child to feel embarrassment, confusion, and frustration which can lead to challenging behaviors.  Just as adults and other family members may be frustrated by your child’s behaviors, your child can be frustrated by others’ behaviors toward him – or the lack of actions to help him – resulting in a continuous cycle of communication and, ultimately, a behavior breakdown.

A key way you can communicate more effectively to maintain positive feelings is to turn indirect language into direct language by being very explicit and specific.  Let’s explore some examples that I have witnessed:

A family was painting their walls, and some paint had fallen into a puddle onto the floor.  Their son was about to step in it when his father loudly shouted his name.  The boy saw his father’s shocked and nervous face and heard his dad say, “Be careful!”. However, the son proceeded to step into the paint, then walked throughout the house. Needless to say, no one was thrilled.

Child’s Perception: I see Dad’s face, but I can’t perceive what his expression means.  I hear Dad’s words, but I can’t interpret what they mean.

Child’s Thinking: Life as usual.

Social Outcome: I’ll continue my course of action, which is to step into the paint that I don’t know is there.

Why?  This child doesn’t understand implied or indirect language, the meaning of which requires interpretation. What exactly does “Be careful” or to literally ‘be full of care’ mean? Even if he realizes that it is a warning, he’s unsure of what the concern is, where the danger is coming from, what exactly he should or should not do, and what could happen.  Further, this child does not understand non-verbal body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, so he could not make sense of these cues to take the proper action.

Solution: Turn indirect language into direct language.  This dad can give specific details about where the problem is and what action(s) the child should and should not do next. He could say, “Be careful!  There’s paint on the floor next to your right foot.  Look down at the paint.  Don’t step in it.  Walk around the paint.”  He can explicitly define his facial expressions and tone of voice by saying, “Look at my face and listen to my voice – this is my worried/shocked/nervous face and voice.”

A child asks her mother if they can go to the park.  The mother says, “I don’t know.” The child continually asks her, and she gives various responses like, “Maybe…we’ll see. I’m not sure.”  Then, the child threw herself on the floor crying.

Child’s Perception: Mom is withholding information that she does, in fact, know.

Child’s Thinking: I want a definite “yes/no” answer.

Social Outcome: I’ll tantrum until she tells me “yes” or “no”.

Why?  The actual words are a problem as this child does not understand probability and uncertainty.

Solution: Turn indirect language into direct language. This mother can guide her child’s understanding with pictures or word-like formulas to explain conditional “if/then” situations.  Explain that we first have to wait for certain events to happen before we know which activities we’ll be able to do.  This mom can tell her child, “Look at the clock.  Right now it is 12:00.  If it is sunny at 12:30, then we will go to the park. If it is raining at 12:30, then we will stay home. At 12:30, you tell me if it is sunny or raining.

Or, this mother can use pictorial formulas like:
[Sunny picture] at 12:30 = [Park picture]
[Rainy picture] at 12:30 = [House picture]

Your daughter with autism kicks her brother by accident under the table. Your son shouts, “Cut it out!”. Despite his shouting at her, she continues to keep her chair and legs in close proximity to him, causing the accidental kicking to continue.

Child’s Perception: Something might be wrong.

Child’s Thinking: I’m not quite sure what it is, so it’s life as usual.

Social Outcome:  I’ll continue my course of action, which is to stay where I’m seated and continue swaying my legs.

Why?  The actual words are a problem as this child does not understand figures-of-speech. Her brother’s words might be literally interpreted that is that there is nothing here to ‘cut out’ with scissors.  Even if your daughter knows that this phrase means he is upset with something she is doing, she might not be aware of exactly what behavior to which he is referring.

Solution: Turn indirect language into direct language. Model a new set of direct words for your son to use as an explanation: “Josh, tell Kayla, ‘You are kicking me.  Please stop kicking me.  Move your chair away from the table a little bit.  Keep your feet on the ground.’”

We all try to improve how to be considerate of each other’s needs.  At first, it may be challenging to use these re-phrasing techniques because of emotions and the urgency of a situation.  Over time, you will learn how to communicate in more effective ways with your child that will, in turn, improve his or her communication with you.  As you more consistently model language from your child’s point-of-view, your child will be able to develop stronger skills of perception, thinking, and social communication which leads to stronger family and social relationships.



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unnamedAbout the author:
Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a Communication Expert and Advocate helping people with autism for over 20 years. As a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor, Karen has been empowering people with autism & special needs to have more meaningful conversations like never before. Her highly effective “I CAN! For Autism Method™” – perfected for over 10 years and now incorporated within the iPad app “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” – is changing lives through improved social and language skills. It is 100% fun for both kids and adults to use! Check it out at

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