Why Teaching Your Child With Autism to Follow Simple Directions Is Important

The achievable goal to follow simple directions should be at the top of the list for your child’s ABA therapist, says Cindy Mrotek at a.c.e. Therapies.

Many parents of a child with autism struggle to get their child to follow directions, which leaves parents wondering if their child can’t understand them or is simply ignoring their requests. But why is it important to teach your child with autism to follow simple directions?

“There are a lot of reasons kids with autism struggle to follow simple directions,” says Cindy Mrotek, CEO and founder of a.c.e. Therapies, a therapy center for kids and adults with autism, disabilities and behavior issues with locations in Merrionette Park, Lockport, Palos Heights and Naperville. “There are also reasons why it’s important to make sure your child with autism has the skill of following simple directions.”

With its scientifically proven step-by-step approach to teaching communication, sharing, coping with change and many other important life skills, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is an effective method for teaching children with autism how to follow simple directions.

“With ABA therapy, following simple directions is one of the first things we work on with kids with autism because this skill can really help a child go on to build social skills, make friends and function in the community,” Mrotek says.

Can’t or won’t?

Because each child with autism is an individual  — with unique abilities and motivations — parents should work with their child’s ABA therapist to discover why following simple directions is so challenging, and how to overcome that difficulty. A skilled ABA therapist will create a plan that is designed specifically for your child’s needs.

“We try to tease out whether following a particular direction is a can’t do because the child simply doesn’t understand what is being asked of them, or it’s a won’t do because they are refusing,” Mrotek explains.

When a child is asked to get their shoes, for example, do they scan the room looking for their shoes? If not, chances are they don’t understand what is being asked of them.

“Or are they refusing because they know that getting their shoes means that they will have demands put on them?” Mrotek asks.

Motivating activities

If a child refuses to comply with a simple direction because they suspect that they will have to transition from a favored activity to something less fun and interesting, ABA therapists help the child recognize that the new activity might not be so bad after all.

“When we are first teaching a child to follow directions, we transition from one motivating activity to another motivating activity so they can learn that following directions isn’t a bad thing,” Mrotek explains. If a child learns that going to the park comes after getting their shoes, they may be more motivated to get their shoes when asked, for instance.

Why learning to follow simple directions is important

Because simple directions can so often be related to basic health and safety, learning this skill is a top priority for all children who come to a.c.e. Therapies, Mrotek says. “We always work on the directions related to safety first — like stop, no, wait and how to respond to your name,” she says.

Making sure your child with autism will listen and follow these simple safety-related directions can make venturing out into the community easier and safer for the child, their parents and the whole family. While they’re thankfully not an everyday occurrence, emergencies do happen and you’ll want to be certain your child will stand up and follow you when necessary.

“We teach these skills naturally, in a way a parent would communicate it, and across multiple environments,” Mrotek says. “One very important skill we teach is how to hold my hand. If they can learn to take your hand and do it willingly, it creates a more safe situation than if you were just grabbing and holding their hand.”

And, mastering the skill of following simple directions when they are young means a child with autism is more likely to find success when they become older and attend school, Mrotek says.

“When you don’t have good listener skills and don’t follow one-step directions, that’s when problem behavior happens,” she explains. “When a child is running out of the building and the principal or teacher says ‘stop’ and they don’t stop, that’s when the school doesn’t let the child continue attending. That’s when you can’t go out in public because you are not safe.”

Learn more about a.c.e. Therapies at ace-therapies.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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