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The Preview: Autism

Help a student with autism be accountable for his actions

We received this question through the Ask the Expert section of our Autism Resource Center and passed it along to two of our autism authors for their perspectives:

Group of students

"What about the parent who does not require her 12-year-old child to be accountable for his behavior/actions but tells him he should not be expected to do this because he has autism. He tells his teacher he can't do that because he has autism. Diagnosis is PDD NOS. This is very frustrating."

The authors approached the question from two different angles, both of which lead the student to greater accountability: the first focuses on empowering the parents and the second on empowering the student. See if any of these suggestions would work for you.

Answer 1: Give the parent the confidence to have higher expectations

First, Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel, co-author of Pivotal Response Treatments for Autism, offered these thoughts:

Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel

Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel

"If the parent doesn't require the child to be accountable for his behavior, it creates a more difficult situation for the school staff, but it may be that the parent has simply given up or feels a sense of helplessness. It sounds like some parent education may be important. If you are able to do some parent education, you might want to start with behaviors that are important or would be helpful for the parent. That way the parent is more likely to follow through with the intervention. Targeting small behaviors that the parent can easily manage will result in a feeling of success for the parent."

As an example of a small behavior in a home setting, Dr. Koegel suggested that the teacher have the parent ask the child to get a plate out and then serve the child his or her favorite dessert (a natural reinforcer). The child is more likely to respond positively since he wants the dessert. When the child has followed the parent's instruction, the parent will have a greater a feeling of empowerment. Gradually and systematically the parent can add instructions. In time parents will gain greater confidence in having higher expectations of their child, which will naturally extend into the classroom.

Even if teachers are not in a position (or don't have the time) to take part in any sort of formal parent education, they can guide parents to take steps in areas in which they would like to see greater accountability (having the child turn in completed homework, for instance).

For more information on the value of parent education, see this excerpt from Pivotal Response Treatments for Autism: Communication, Social, and Academic Development.

Find additional resources to help you address this question—such as a functional behavior assessment checklist from Prevent–Teach–Reinforce: The School-Based Model of Individualized Positive Behavior Support or a sample behavior teaching plan from Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom—in our special Autism Awareness Month "Download-a-Day" feature.

Answer 2: Give the student the confidence to take risks

Dr. Paula Kluth, author of several autism books including the new edition of "You're Going to Love this Kid!" Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, approached the question from a different angle.

Dr. Paula Kluth

Dr. Paula Kluth

To teachers who have a student who is resisting or refusing to do work, she encourages you first to examine the task and see if the student legitimately could benefit from some adaptation or support:

"Examine any underlying reason for the 'resistance.' Could the student be struggling to understand what needs to be done? Does he have the necessary skills to perform the requested task? Is he experiencing sensory problems that are interfering with getting work done?"

Some slight modification may be all that is necessary to help him succeed.

If the student is being given the message elsewhere that he is "limited" by his diagnosis, Dr. Kluth proposed giving him examples of others with autism who are succesful despite, or even because of, their autism label (Temple Grandin comes immediately to mind).

Dr. Kluth suggested these other steps you can take to turn students' attitude from I can't do that to Yes, I can:

  • Some students on the spectrum may resist activities that don't make sense or seem to have a purpose. Sharing the "why" of the activity may work for some students. For instance, a child who does not want to practice the dialogue from the class play over and over again (because he has already read the play once) might need more information on what rehearsal is and why actors practice. You might even give him a new goal each time so he feels the experience is novel on each occasion.

  • Use a special interest or area of expertise to motivate and interest the learner. If she won't (or can't) work on the vocabulary words you have assigned her to define, give her examples of how those words are tied to her interest area. For instance, allow a child who loves Paula Dean, the TV-cooking phenomenon, to write all her vocabulary words and definitions on recipe cards instead of in a notebook.

  • If the student constantly refuses to perform a particular task, give him the opportunity to do it for a very short period. Over time, gradually increase the period he engages in the task.

  • Try giving choices that might empower the student and help her explore her learning preferences: Do you want to do this sitting at your desk or do you want to do it sitting on the floor? or Do you want to write a response or draw one?

  • Try starting the task or activity with or for the learner. For instance, if the student won't (or can't) start writing an assigned essay, the teacher might write the first sentence, work together with him to write the first sentence, or serve as a scribe as he shares a few sentences verbally.

  • The learner may be very reluctant to try new things or to engage in activities that feel risky (e.g., reading in front of others). Having another student share positive experiences about the new activity can be comforting to some.

  • Talk to the student about setting reasonable goals.

  • Try teaching a mantra (or even making an index card with the mantra printed on the card) about "letting go" of being imperfect and teach students to repeat the phrase in times of stress (Nobody's perfect; At least I tried; Risk is its own reward).

  • Encourage all students to "just try" and to take risks. Create a safe classroom environment where students are encouraged to explore new skills and experiences.

To try an activity that's useful in helping students persevere through a less desirable task to get to a preferred activity or object, download these instructions on how to create a "first/then" board, excerpted from From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K–12 Classrooms.


Taking these steps to increase both the parent and the student's confidence may not show immediate results (although you may be surprised), but over time you will see a child becoming more accountable for his behavior and actions, in your classroom and beyond.

This article features features downloads from the following books:

Pivotal Response Treatments for Autism: Communication, Social, and Academic Development

Prevent-Teach-Reinforce: The School-Based Model of Individualized Positive Behavior Support

Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom: A Guide to Improving Outcomes for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K-12 Inclusive Classrooms

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