Getting Your Child with Autism to Follow Directions

Getting Your Child with Autism to Follow Directions

My child doesn’t follow directions!”

This is a very common complaint amongst parents and teachers of children with autism or other special needs.

There are various reasons why your child doesn’t follow directions, from lack of skills to carry out certain tasks, to difficulty processing words, to lack of motivation. However, following directions are crucial life skills, and this is the reason every Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program focuses on teaching these skills. The following is a list of techniques- based on the principles of ABA- to help your child or student master the crucial skill of following instructions.

Break It Down

In ABA, we are always looking for ways to break complex skills down into smaller components. Some of the things you ask your child to do may not seem complicated to you, but to a child with autism, ADHD, or developmental delay,  it is indeed very difficult. Think about it: your child first has to focus on what you are saying, then make meaning of the words, and then use their body to execute the task. When it comes to directions, there are 1-step directions (Give me the cup), 2-step directions (Take off your shoes and put them in the closet), and multiple step directions (instructions involving many steps). If your child has difficulty following instructions, start with simple 1-step instructions and work your up to more complex instructions.    

Keep Instructions Clear and Concise

“Take off shoes” is not the way people normally talk. But sometimes, when working with our kids we need to leave out unnecessary words. This ensures that your child hears the most important parts, “take off” and “shoes.” Don’t worry- you can gradually add more words.

In addition, you should be very specific when giving instructions to your child. “Clean your room please” might be too vague, so a better approach would be to specify what cleaning a room actually entails. For instance, you can say, “Put your trains in the box” or “Put clothes in drawer.”

Follow Through

The most basic assumption of ABA is that behavior is shaped by the consequences that follow it. What do you normally do if you give your child an instruction but they fail to carry it out? If you just forget about it, or do it for your child, then they learn that they do not have to follow directions. So make sure you require your child to comply to an instruction, even if you need to help him.

Sometimes, we shy away from making our kids do things that are difficult for them. But doing this will rob your child of valuable learning experiences. So practice, practice, practice!  Look for opportunities to  teach directions. For example, after your come home you might say “Put shoes in the closet” or “go wash hands.” Or before you allow your child to eat lunch, you can say, “Time to sit in your chair.”


When your child does something you asked her to do, give her lots of praise and encouragement! Some children, depending on the severity of their disability or level of motivation, may need additional reinforcement such as stickers, a favorite snack, or a favorite toy as a reward. If possible, tie the reward to whatever the instruction was (A favorite snack after sitting at the table, for example.)

Other Considerations

Don’t forget to demonstrate for your child how to perform various tasks.

Many children with autism are visual learners, so you can also try writing down instructions, or using pictures to show your child what you would like him to do.

It may be that whatever you are asking your child to do just isn’t relevant to your child’s life. So it’s important to incorporate instructions into activities that your child likes- asking your child to get his or her shoes before you leave the house to go to the park, for example. Of course there are times when this is not possible, but the more positive associations your child has with following directions, the better.

You may have noticed by now that many of the tips presented in this series, “Top 10 Battles between You and Your Child” are similar, such as breaking things down, following through, and reinforcing your child for positive behavior. The principles of ABA and can be used to teach a variety of positive behaviors!