Why cooperation is important
Cooperative behaviour helps children succeed at school, in relationships with others and in extracurricular activities. It’s also important for a happy and harmonious life.
Cooperation involves several important skills like sharing, taking turns and following instructions from others. Children need these skills to communicate and get along with others in most social situations.
Why autistic children and teenagers can be uncooperative
Most children struggle to cooperate sometimes. But parents of autistic children and teenagers often find that their child’s lack of cooperation interferes with everyday life. There are several reasons for uncooperative behaviour.
Difficulty understanding instructions
Younger autistic children, or children with limited language, often have difficulty understanding instructions. This can make it harder for them to cooperate. This can happen in the following situations:
- There are too many instructions. Autistic children often need a little extra time to process what you’re asking them to do and can feel overwhelmed if they’re asked to do too many things at once.
- The instructions are too hard. Sometimes children don’t have the right skills to do what they’re asked to do. For example, if a child doesn’t know how to button their shirt, they might have trouble if they’re asked to get dressed. Or children might not have the language skills they need to understand.
- The instructions are too vague. Children might have trouble cooperating if it’s not clear what they’re supposed to do – for example, ‘Watch your shoes on the couch, Jack’. It can also be hard for children if they think they have a choice when they actually don’t – for example, ‘Do you want to go to bed, Susan?’
Difficulty with social interactions and communication
Autistic children typically have difficulty with social interactions and communication. So they might be uncooperative because they haven’t learned the appropriate behaviour for different social situations. Or they might not be able to manage the strong or difficult emotions – like anger, frustration or anxiety – that can come with being asked to do something they don’t want to do or feel they can’t do well.
Children with little or no language can easily get frustrated if they can’t verbally express their feelings – this is true for all children.
Autistic children are sometimes uncooperative when they’re asked to do something they don’t like because of sensory issues – for example, going into a noisy shop or eating foods with particular textures.
Fixed ideas and behaviour
Autistic children can have rigid, fixed ideas and behaviour that can interfere with their ability to take instructions. They can also find it hard to shift their attention from one thing to another. It might look like your child is being uncooperative when your child just needs time and help to move on to a new activity or follow a new instruction.
Escaping unpleasant situations
Uncooperative behaviour sometimes gets children out of situations they don’t like or that make them feel anxious or stressed. When autistic children don’t want to do something – like packing away toys or doing household chores – it’s understandable if tired or frustrated parents let them get out of it, rather than forcing the issue.
Guiding autistic children and teenagers towards cooperation
Here are some strategies that can guide your child’s behaviour in positive ways and help to strengthen your child’s cooperative spirit.
Setting limits means sending a firm message about what your child can and can’t do – for example, bedtime on a school night is 8 pm.
When you set limits, it’s important to follow through on your expectations. This shows your child that you mean what you say. So if bedtime is 8 pm, you need to stick to this. If it’s 8 pm some nights and ‘whenever’ at other times, your child might lobby for ‘whenever’ every night.
When children have choices, they learn to make decisions and think for themselves. This is good for your child’s self-esteem as well as their ability to cooperate.
A good way to give your child choices is to offer a limited range of options – two is good. For example, ‘Lou, it’s lunchtime. Would you like a cheese sandwich or a Vegemite sandwich?’ Or ‘Rani, it’s time to get dressed. Would you like to wear this skirt or these jeans?’
You can give your child the opportunity to make choices every day – for example, what toys to play with, books to read, clothes to wear, snacks to eat, parks to play at, or projects to work on.
Giving effective instructions
The way you give instructions strongly influences whether your child will cooperate. You can make your instructions more effective by:
- getting your child’s attention
- making sure you’re giving an instruction, not a request – for example, ‘Hold my hand while we cross the road’, rather than ‘Do you want to hold my hand?’
- being clear about what needs to be done
- making sure your child can do what you’re asking
- telling your child what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do – for example, ‘Rachel, walk when you’re inside’, rather than ‘Don’t run, Rachel’
- following through on what you’ve asked.
It might help your child if you use pictures. For example, use a picture of hand-washing when you ask your child to wash their hands. It can also help to use clear, concise language with only a few words. Also give your child some time, perhaps 10 seconds, to process the instruction.
This is a simple strategy that makes it more likely your child will follow through on your instructions.
Step 1 is to give the instruction:
- Say to your child, ‘Josh, wash your hands’.
- Give your child five seconds to follow your instruction.
- If your child cooperates, give enthusiastic praise and encouragement.
- If your child doesn’t cooperate within five seconds, move to step 2.
Step 2 is to give the instruction again and show your child what you want them to do:
- Say, ‘Josh, wash your hands’, and point or walk over to the sink.
- If your child cooperates within five seconds, give your child plenty of praise.
- If your child doesn’t cooperate within five seconds of your instruction and demonstration, move to step 3.
Step 3 is to give the instruction again and use physical guidance:
- Say, ‘Josh, wash your hands’, and use hand-over-hand guidance to wash your child’s hands.
- Don’t stop guiding your child until the instruction is complete.
There are a few things to remember with three-step prompting:
- Repeat your instruction with every prompt.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 only once.
- Focus on the task – don’t talk about other things with your child.
- Give your child praise and encouragement when they cooperate.
- Don’t give praise and encouragement when you need to use physical guidance.
Changing the environment so autistic children and teenagers can cooperate
You might be able to change the environment so it’s easier for your child to cooperate.
Start by thinking about the situations in which your child is consistently uncooperative.
For example, your child is uncooperative if you go out to eat, but fine at home at mealtimes. This might be because your child is used to a particular routine at home, or prefers to eat from their own special plate. Or your child is uncooperative in crowded, noisy environments, which might be because they’re more sensitive to sounds than other children.
There might be things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable and therefore more cooperative:
- Use your child’s comfort objects in situations where they’re uncooperative. For example, take a special plate from home if you go out to eat.
- Compromise between what you need to do and your child’s sensitivities. For example, go to the shopping centre at quieter times of day.
Helping autistic children and teenagers with interactions and communication
If autistic children understand what they need to do in certain social situations or have the skills to communicate in these situations, they might be more likely to cooperate.
Social stories explain social situations to autistic children. You can write one to encourage appropriate skills and behaviour in situations where your child needs to cooperate, including washing hands, going shopping, packing away and so on.
Social stories are particularly helpful for children who get anxious and prefer to know what’s going to happen.
Technology can help children with limited language cooperate by making it easier for them to communicate. For example, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses pictures, symbols, words or photographs that represent tasks, actions or objects.