7 Keys to Encourage Your Autistic (Neurodiverse) Child to Listen

Young girl with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental challenge with arms folded, pouting, appearing defiant

•    Do you often ask your child to do something and get no response?  

•    Does it seem like she doesn’t even hear you?  

•    Does your child argue and try to convince you to let him do what he wants?  

•    Do you get frustrated and end up yelling and/or threatening your child?

You are not alone.  Not listening or following directions is a very common behavior problem with autistic and other neurodiverse children.


Below are 7 keys for getting your child to listen:

1.  Figure out the Reason for the Behavior

When your neurodiverse child doesn’t listen, it may seem like she is doing it on purpose. But, there are many reasons why this happens. Figuring out the reasons is very important. It may not be possible to understand completely, but having some idea why your child doesn’t listen to you will help you determine what to do. There may be several reasons, not just one. Figuring this out can take some detective work and your best guess…  your gut feelings about your child.

Some examples of reasons why autistic children don’t follow directions:
•    Your child may feel that he has little control over his life, and so tries to be in control by not doing what you ask.  
•    Often children get into power struggles with their parents, and this can be a part of typical development, but for autistic children, the power struggles can be more persistent.  
•    She could simply have a more independent personality and does not like to be told what to do.  
•   Your child may lack certain skills or be too young to do certain things. For example, he may not cooperate when asked to get dressed, because it is difficult for him to dress by himself. Or, your child does not pick up his toys, because he is overwhelmed by the amount of toys on the floor.  
•    Your child may be feeling stressed at school because of academic pressure, sensory problems, bullying, etc., and may just be cranky when she gets home.  
•    When you are stressed or there are conflicts in the home, your child may not listen because she feels anxious about what she feels.
•    Your child may have sensory processing problems that make it harder for her to listen and follow directions.
You may need to seek the help of a professional if your child’s behavior is very persistent and frequent. If you would like some assistance in determining the cause of the uncooperative behavior, feel free to contact us.

2.  Problem Solving
Once the suspected reasons for your child not listening is identified, look at how you can help your child meet those needs in another way. For example:
•    Talk to your child’s teacher about what you think may be bothering him at school.
•    Teaching your child skills can take time, but the more independent she is, the less you have to tell her what to do.  This can lessen her overall frustration. Try breaking down a task into small steps, and ask your child to just do one step. When she can do the one step, add the next step, and so on. Or, you can do the task with your child in a positive, supportive manner, and then gradually let him do more and more by himself.
•    Let your child know you understand how she feels. Talk to your child about school or family stress, without blame. For example, “I know math is hard for you and you get frustrated”. This can help your child understand her own feelings.

3.  Choices
Give your child choices as much as you can. There are ways you can do this in most every area of your child’s life. For example:
•    Instead of telling her what to wear or picking out her clothes, give her the choice. If too many options are difficult for her, narrow down the choices by showing her 2 or 3 outfits. (But, if your child does not seem to care, you don’t need to insist she choose her clothes.)
•      Encourage your child to choose between 2 snacks or meals.   
•    When giving your child a direction, give him a choice of what to do first. For example, instead of telling him to take a bath, ask him what he wants to do first; brush his teeth or take a bath.
•    Having the choices in writing, pictures, or showing her the object (i.e., shirts, toothbrush, cereal boxes), can help make it easier for her to choose.

4.  Have Routines
It is important to be consistent and have regular routines as much as possible. When things are predictable, your child is more likely to listen, then when there are a lot of changes from day to day. No one can control everything in a day, but try to be as consistent as you can. Using a written or picture schedule can really help increase structure and predictability for your child. This is very important for many autistic children, and you may find your child is more cooperative with a schedule.

5.  Give Clear, Short Directions
Some ways to give directions so your child understands:
•    It may help to first get eye contact. But, making eye contact for some children makes them very anxious, and then they have a harder time listening. Try to sense what works for your child.
•    You may have your child repeat back the direction to be sure you have been understood.  
•   Children have different strengths and weaknesses, including how they understand information. If you give your child a series of verbal directions, she may not remember, or she may get frustrated or confused. If there is a written or picture schedule, she may be much more cooperative and independent.  
•    Some children have a short attention span. When on his way to pick up his shoes, he may get distracted, and forget what he was going to do. When he loses focus, he may need the direction calmly repeated.

6.  Give Your Child Time
•    Some children need time to process what was said and do not immediately respond. It may seem like she is ignoring you, but that may not be what is going on. Then, if you continue to repeat the direction she may get confused and/or frustrated. Some children have a slow processing speed, which means a slower pace of taking in information. Try giving a direction or choice and waiting 20 – 30 seconds before repeating it.

•    It is best to not expect your child to immediately drop everything and do what you ask. For example, when you tell your child that it will be time for dinner after the television program is over, he is more likely to cooperate than if you suddenly tell him to turn off the television without warning.  (I know that would annoy me!)

7.  Follow Through With Directions
Every child is different.  Here are 5 steps that can help your child to listen:
Step 1: Only repeat a direction 2 to 3 times. (If you repeat directions over and over, your child learns that he doesn’t have to listen and tunes you out until you yell or take some kind of action.)
Step 2:  If she continues to not listen after repeating 2 times, then use a firmer voice (without yelling or anger), and/or walk over to her.
Step 3:  If he still does not cooperate, be firm and calm, and go with him to make sure he does what you ask.  
Step 4: You can guide your child physically, but do not force your child to cooperate. It is better to stop pushing than to physically force your child. It’s better to stop than to get into a power struggle.
Step 5: See our blog on how to Reward your child for listening and following directions.  

It is important to stay calm and not show frustration or anger. When you get mad, your child will probably get mad too, or emotionally overwhelmed, and then the behavior gets worse. Teaching your child to follow directions can be complex and it may be difficult to figure out what to do without outside support. please feel free to contact us if you have questions or would like help with these steps.