Not long ago, at an autism treatment forum, I heard about a painful and frustrating episode a teenager recalled from his childhood. At five years old, the boy was 45 minutes into an autism treatment session when he ran to the window, pressed his nose against it, and stared intently at the family car. Unable to use spoken language or even point or gesture, he was simply trying to express to his behavior therapist and his mother that he was weary of the incessant drills and ready to go home.
The therapist didn’t get the message, dismissing his attempt to communicate as mere “stimming”—that is, a form of meaningless self-stimulation. “He’s fixating on the car,” she told the boy’s mother. “Let’s ignore and try to get him back to the table.” Now 17, the boy recalls his great frustration trying to make himself understood.
The therapist wasn’t being intentionally harsh. She was merely following an autism treatment protocol that uses reinforcement and other strategies such as “planned ignoring” to help children learn and acquire new, adaptive behaviors. Over two decades working with children with autism, however, I have grown increasingly concerned about the use of planned ignoring, also known as tactical ignoring.
Why? It doesn’t build social and emotional development when we ignore a child’s attempts to communicate. Doing so doesn’t help the child, but can fuel frustration, anger and resentment. We must ask ourselves, if behaviors are a form of communication, what message are we giving by ignoring? Just as we wouldn’t ignore a “typical” child’s attempts to communicate, it’s time that we look below the surface and question whether this technique is appropriate for individuals with special needs.
Here are some of the hidden costs of this commonly used tool in autism treatment:
- Ignoring sends the wrong emotional message to the child. In short, the adult is saying, “I’m not interested in what you’re trying to convey, and I’ll pay attention only when you comply with my demands.”
- Ignoring presupposes that an autistic child’s observable behaviors accurately reveal his or her intentions. In fact, many children lack the ability to coordinate movement and/or language to convey their inner thoughts.
- Ignoring oversimplifies the child’s behaviors without trying to discern underlying thoughts and feelings.
- It is stressful and unnatural for parents to ignore their own child.
What’s a better alternative? Rather than ignoring, it’s best to do the opposite: pay extra attention to behaviors, and ask questions: What is the child trying to tell us? How can we help make it easier for the child to communicate? When we ignore children, we risk shutting down their attempts to do what we want them to do most: communicate.
To reconsider the value of planned ignoring, parents should:
- Collaborate with the teachers and professionals working with your child to review your child’s program and discuss the benefits and costs of planned ignoring.
- Consider the functionality of your child’s motor system—his ability to put his thoughts into action, through words, gestures, drawings, etc. If your child’s motor system is compromised, use planned ignoring with caution.
- Get support helping your child to communicate by enlisting specialists who presume competence in your child and can help your child to communicate using the latest knowledge and technology (new applications are arriving daily).
- Consider developmental and relationship- based approaches that consider children’s emotions and relationships as the foundation for treatment.
To be sure, there are occasions when ignoring unwanted behaviors may be the best approach. But with the insights we now have of neurodevelopment in autism, it’s essential not to misuse ignoring. Most importantly, trust your instinct as a parent. If a technique doesn’t feel right for your child, speak up. Nobody knows your child as you do.
** Parents, if your child is receiving ABA therapy, it is an evidence-based treatment for autism. My intention is not to suggest discontinuing treatment or to cause stress, but to help you refine and enrich your child’s treatment experiences based on new information from the field of interpersonal neurobiology.
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