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Why is My Child with Autism Being Uncooperative?

Cooperation might seem like a simple skill to us, but it might be challenging for children with autism to cooperate with others.

Cooperation would include a child working together with another individual in achieving a common goal. This can be seen in children building a house together with blocks, a child cooking pancakes with his/her parents, or a child fixing a puzzle with his/her siblings. However, children with autism might face challenges in cooperating with other individuals to complete an activity or a task. This can be demonstrated either passively, where the child ignores an instruction, or actively, which can be seen as aggression or crying (Wong, 2020).

Why is this the case in some children with autism?

Children with autism may face challenges in the development of their social and communication skills, such as struggling with communicating their needs or wants, which makes it harder for them to communicate and respond to social information from others (Hobbs, 2022). Some children might also find it hard to understand certain instructions or directions from others, either due to the complexity or vagueness of the instruction, where the child might need more time to process what is being said, or might not understand what they are being tasked to do (Raising Children Network, 2020). This in turn affects their ability for reciprocal interactions, which leads to a lower level of cooperative social behaviours in children with autism (Downs & Smith, 2004). Additionally, children with autism may display rigidity, where this behaviour interferes with their ability to adapt to new information, such as taking instructions from another individual. Due to this inflexibility in their thinking, tantrums or overreaction to situations might occur (Davis, 2020). During these meltdowns, children with autism are less open to listening to others, thus increasing the challenge of getting children with autism to cooperate with others in these situations. How can we then manage these behaviours in children and get them to cooperate with us?

Communicating in a clear manner

It is important to communicate in a way that your child is able to understand, such as by using simple terms and being as specific as possible (Sheldon-Dean, 2022). For example, saying “Please put your toys in the blue box” instead of asking, “Can you help me to clean up your room?” would help your child better understand what they are supposed to do. The use of visual aids like pictures are helpful as well, especially if your child is still working on following verbal instructions.

Reinforcing cooperative behaviours

Reinforcing or rewarding your child whenever they show cooperative behaviour such as following instructions increases their motivation to listen and work together with you. Reinforcement can be done through praises, e.g. “Good job keeping your toys!” or with something your child likes, e.g. a toy or an activity (Wong, 2020). Keep in mind to be specific when praising your child, for him/ her to have a better understanding of what the positive behaviour is, which will then increase the likelihood of your child engaging in this desired behaviour in the future.

Offering choices

The ability to make a choice allows children with autism to express their interests and provides them with a sense of autonomy. This enables children to feel confident in themselves and the choices they make. The use of choices instead of setting expectations by giving instructions allows children to feel empowered while being able to set limits (McNeil, 2021). This may look like “Do you want to brush your teeth or change into your pyjamas first?” Presentation of visual aids or gestures can also assist the child in identifying and making a choice by strengthening their comprehension of the choices offered and ensuring a timely response.

All in all, cooperation is a useful skill for children to be able to work well with others in a social setting. Getting a child with autism to cooperate with others might be challenging, but is not impossible. It is a learning process for both parents and children, where it is important to be patient and discover what works best for the child.

Written by: Mary-Anne


Davis, J. (2020, April 23). Ways to deal with Cognitive Rigidity in Autistic Kids. As Kids Blossom.

Downs, A., & Smith, T. (2004). Emotional understanding, cooperation, and social behavior in high-functioning children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 34(6), 625-635.

Hobbs, K. G. (2022, January 6). Severe Low Functioning Autism- What Sets it Apart. Autism Parenting Magazine.

McNeil, C. (2021, April 30). Leading with Choice: Honoring and Empowering Autistic Children.

Sheldon-Dean, H. (2022, July 25). Increasing Cooperation in Kids With Autism. Child Mind Institute.

Wong, M. S. (2020). How do I get my child to comply and follow instructions? (Part 1).

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