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8 Keys to Teach Children With Autism How to Follow Directions

Let's start with a little experiment in sensory processing for children with autism. Simply read the next paragraph.

Have you ever noticed that to read comfortably, our eyes typically prefer little to no differentiation in font sizes, colors, and styles? And the more fonts used, the more uncomfortable it is to read and then take into Consideration grammar and punctuation or the lack of it AND THEN ALL CAPS IS USED (AND ALLCAPS MEANS YELLING. "WHY IS HE YELLING AT ME?") andevenwordspacingwithoutnecessaryspacesbetweenwords ......and it all becomes overwhelming?

And you just want it all to stop. So you tune it out.

Welcome to the brain of a child with autism. And that was just ONE sense. Now read the same paragraph with another child yelling in your ear, your AC is broken so you are sweating like a pig, your shorts are riding something fierce, LEG CRAMP!, and...what is that smell!? Yeah, that's a little closer to autism.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition where the brain has difficulty organizing information, (or8 Keys to get children with autism to follow directions stimulation from the senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, etc.) and processing it into manageable bits. As illustrated above, your senses–in this case "visual" while reading–can be overwhelmed into inaction, (or nausea in this case,) when it is overly stimulating and difficult to process. SPD is frequently associated with Autism. SPD is just one reason why children with autism do what they do–instead of following your directions.

If a child can't organize information, he can't effectively respond, and if he can't respond, he can't learn. You've got to reduce the confusion caused by all the different "fonts, colors, typos, poor grammar, etc." –or in real life the simultaneous, overwhelming awareness of multiple stimulation to the senses.

What we want is for our children to learn to self-manage the process of organizing stimulation to their senses so they can do it independently in the future. Adapting the child’s sensory experience when they are given a direction, and decreasing the stimuli of the overwhelming experience, will allow the child greater opportunities for success in learning to follow directions. One way of modifying the sensory experience in relation to getting children to follow directions is to simplify the information they need to process so they can organize it, respond appropriately, and learn how to improve their ability to self-manage.

All young children need support from their parents to learn to follow directions. By implementing these eight steps, and coaching your child through repetition and consistency, your child can learn to make following directions a good habit, and you and your child will be successful!


8 keys to get children with
autism to follow directions

1. Make sure the child is paying attention

Close proximity, eye contact

2. Be specific.

“Hands down”, “STOP”

3. Give short, simple directions.

“Walking feet”, “Stay with teacher”

4. Give one direction at a time.

“Stand up” "Hold my hand"

5. State the direction positively

Instead of “no hitting” try “nice hands”

6. Give extra assistance

Repeat directions, show pictures, etc. “line up, time for recess” (Repeat as needed for child's developmental level.)

7. Tell. Don’t ask 

Not: “Do you need to go potty?” 
But: “Time for potty”
Not: “Are you finished?” 
But “All done!”

8. Repeat, practice, and praise–make it a habit or routine

Stand up. Hold my hand, Walk with me. Sit down. "Great Job," etc.
Habits are easier for children of all ages and abilities–including children with autism–to understand and carry out directions.
When children can successfully carryout directions, this builds their self confidence.


Did you recognize in #7 how rephrasing direction from a question into a statement is one way of simplifying the process of organizing information? There is no question to have to process and clarify. Simply follow the stated instruction.

In #5 did, you notice how the direction was stated in a positive way? This helps to reinforce the behavior you want your child to learn and exhibit independently on their own. Children with Autism are developing just like all children need to develop. Just as children develop at different rates from each other: when they walk, when they talk, etc., children with autism are developing at their rate. And, yes, more work, patience, and persistence is required. But they are your children, you love them, and you want the best for them. So take these eight keys for getting children with autism to follow directions, and get started. (Notice how key #7 "Tell, Don't Ask" was just used? Getting the idea?)

If you have something you've done with your child that has worked to help your child follow directions, please share. We'd love to hear about it.

Early intervention with autism is essential. View this autism checklist to better determine if your child is on the autism spectrum. If you think your child is on the spectrum, seek assistance immediately. If your child does not have autism, great. If he/she does, the sooner you start learning how to help your child, the better the results will be.


Have questions? Ask an autism specialist. Click here.

Or find a coach for autism.


Rachelle Blair, autism specialistGuest Blog by Autism Specialist, Rachelle Blair. Rachelle has helped parents adjust and find balance with autism in their families for more than 20 years. She has worked in both the private and public sector. She currently is a licensed early intervention autism specialist for the Jordan School District. She frequently presents and trains teachers on autism, and she is an independently contracted consultant focusing on the most effective in-home autism strategies for parents. Rachelle is the author of the online course, How to Discipline Children with Autism.




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