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Increasing Cooperation in Kids With Autism

Strategies for getting kids to work with you

Writer: Hannah Sheldon-Dean

Clinical Expert: Bethany Vibert, PsyD

en Español

Cooperation can be a challenge for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) under the best of circumstances. And in stressful situations — when cooperation is often most important — following instructions can get even harder.

Here are some tips to help parents of kids with autism increase cooperation while still respecting kids’ autonomy and keeping fights to a minimum.

Communicating effectively

Following a few simple guidelines can make it much easier to communicate with a child on the autism spectrum — and getting your message across makes cooperation much more likely.

  • Be simple and direct. “If you want to give effective instruction, you have to be super specific,” says Bethany Vibert, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. For example, instead of saying, “Can you finish setting the table?” you might say, “Please put the plates on the table.” The idea is to let your child know exactly what your expectations are in the moment, rather than giving them a list of tasks or a general instruction.
  • Avoid sarcasm, figures of speech and jokes. Kids with autism tend to take things literally, so non-literal speech like sarcasm and jokes can confuse them. And if they’re not sure what you’re asking, it’s hard for them to cooperate. “Saying something vague like, ‘It’s about time you get to that’ might just end up frustrating your child,” Dr. Vibert says.
  • Use visual aids. Often, children with ASD benefit from having a visual representation of their goal. So if you want them to set the table, for example, having a picture on hand of exactly how the plates should go can be a big help. A list where kids can check off tasks as they go can also make it easier.
  • Make cooperation rewarding. All kids appreciate acknowledgement for a job well done, so offer small rewards when your child does cooperate. “This could be as simple as a high five or maybe a tickle routine they really enjoy,” says Dr. Vibert. “You really want to make following instructions a positive thing.”

Managing responsibilities

Whether it’s handling homework or keeping up with chores at home, it can be hard for autistic kids to reliably complete tasks. Set them up for success with clear expectations and predictable routines.

  • Set reasonable expectations. It’s important to be aware of your child’s attention span. Kids with autism may struggle to stay on task for a long period of time, which can make it harder for them to do what you’re asking. Help them plan tasks accordingly, like doing homework in short bursts or breaking chores up into steps that don’t take too long.
  • Take plenty of breaks. Once your child completes a task, encourage them to take a break with some physical activity, whether that’s going for a walk, playing in the yard or dancing to a favorite song. “An active break will make them a little less antsy and restless,” says Dr. Vibert.
  • Use a visual schedule. Having a clear visual schedule can help your child see what’s coming and motivate them to stick with tasks they might not like. Dr. Vibert recommends a simple “First/Then” format, where you pair a picture of something your child needs to do with a picture of the reward they’ll get afterward. For example, “If” might be picking up their toys while “Then” is a favorite snack.
  • Be creative. If your child tends to struggle with the same kinds of tasks over and over again, try alternate ways of completing the same work. For example, Dr. Vibert notes that some kids do better writing by hand than typing. So if your child is supposed to type a homework assignment, you can check with the teacher to see if they can write it by hand instead. Even small adjustments to tasks can make it much easier for your child to cooperate.
This article was last reviewed or updated on April 25, 2024.