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When Do I Say No VS When Choices Are Okay - For Children with ASD

Being clear and consistent when saying ‘No’ help guides a child with autism towards better cooperation.

Saying No

Have you ever found yourself saying ‘No!’ to everything? ‘No, stop doing that.’, ‘No, you can’t have that.’, ‘No, don’t touch that.’. The word ‘No’ probably rolls off our tongues way too often and easily. Many times, saying ‘No’ can be very confusing for a child, particularly a child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Children with autism tend to learn from repetition and consistency, so if one constantly uses the word ‘No’ in different situations with varying levels of severity, the child may end up getting confused with the meaning of ‘No’ (Mace, Pratt, Prager, & Pritchard, 2011).

If one uses the word ‘No’ in a serious situation and subsequently in another much light-hearted situation, the child is most likely to associate ‘No’ with the previous time that they have heard the word being used and would assume they are getting into trouble. This explains why the child would experience a meltdown whenever they hear the word ‘No’ (Ryan, 2010). Alternatively, the child may have heard the word being used so frequently that they may not comprehend the importance of it and they simply ignore it whenever they hear the word ‘No’.

Therefore, it is really important that the word ‘No’ should be used in situations when it is truly needed. For example, dangerous situations in which the child is engaging in self-harm behaviours or causing harm to others. It is common for children with ASD to display such behavioural concerns, such as throwing utensils, climbing onto windows, playing with lighters, chewing on wires and many other potentially dangerous situations, as they do not understand the ramifications of their actions.

Similarly, emergency situations would definitely require parents to be firm in saying ‘No’, as how the child responds in that situation can mean the difference in life and death. Particularly in situations such as getting caught in a fire, being involved in a car accident and any scenarios which can be life-threatening. It is crucial in understanding that children with ASD tend to struggle when they are forced to deviate from a routine. Hence, parents need to respond firmly in these emergency situations so that the child is aware of the severity of the situation.

As mentioned above, dangerous and emergency situations require parents to be firm and consistent in using the word ‘No’, as safety is important and should not be compromised in any context, especially if it can potentially be life-threatening (Schunick & Davis, 2002). By being firm and consistent, the boundaries you set would be clear so that children with ASD can better understand and distinguish the severity of situations when ‘No’ is being used (Preece & Howley, 2018).

Choices Are Okay

On the flip side, there are also situations which are acceptable for parents to give the child an option in making a choice rather than simply saying ‘No’. When children have choices, they learn to make decisions and think for themselves (Vella et al., 2018). This is good for the child’s self-esteem, as well as their ability to cooperate. An effective way in providing the child with healthy decision-making opportunities while ensuring that it still stays within our control, is to offer a limited range of options, also known as forced choice. There are plenty of opportunities in our everyday life that we can provide for children with ASD to make choices, such as the types of:

Snacks to eat – ‘Would you like a banana or an apple?’

Clothes to wear – ‘Do you want to wear this red shirt or the blue shirt?’

Books to read – ‘Would you prefer to read this book or that book?’

Toys to play with – ‘Do you want to play with the toy cars or the blocks?’

By keeping the choices clear and limited, it will reduce the chances of them becoming confused or agitated (Grant, Rodger, & Hoffmann, 2015). In addition, the child will most likely feel that they are also in control as they get to make choices and have the final word.

Although making choices does not come intuitively for individuals with autism, making choices are a part of our everyday life. By providing this opportunity, it allows children with ASD to develop a sense of self, build their self-esteem, improve problem-solving skills and learn the responsibilities of making choices. Furthermore, this would allow them to recognise and understand the severity of situations. So when someone does say ‘No’ to them, they are less likely to get agitated and will be more receptive to it. In conclusion, it is important for parents to understand that there is no definite method which will ensure total cooperation in children with ASD, but rather a constant learning process for both parent and child.

Written by: Rebecca


Grant, N., Rodger, S., & Hoffmann, T. (2015). Intervention decision-making processes and information preferences of parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. Child: Care, Health and Development, 42(1), 125-134. Retrieved from

Mace, F. C., Pratt, J. L., Prager, K. L., & Pritchard, D. (2011). An evaluation of three methods of saying “no” to avoid an escalating response class hierarchy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(1), 83-94. Retrieved from

Preece, D., & Howley, M. (2018). An approach to supporting young people with autism spectrum disorder and high anxiety to re- engage with formal education – The impact on young people and their families. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 23(4), 468-481. DOI: 10.1080/02673843.2018.1433695

Ryan, S. (2010). ‘Meltdowns’, surveillance and managing emotions; going out with children with autism. Health & Place, 16(5), 868-875. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2010.04.012

Schunick, W. G., & Davis, B. (2002). Dangerous encounters - Avoiding perilous situations with autism: A streetwise guide for all emergency responders, retailers and parents. Jessica kingsley Publishers Ltd.

Vella, L., Ring, H., Aitken, M., Watson, P., Presland, A., & Clare, I. C. H. (2018). Understanding self-reported difficulties in decision-making by people with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 22(5), 549-559. doi: 10.1177/1362361316687988

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