Rethinking Planned Ignoring for Kids on the Spectrum

If you work with children on the autism spectrum, you’re always looking for effective strategies to help your clients meet their goals. When challenging behaviors get in the way, many therapists decide that a behavioral approach is the way to go. They may choose to ignore their clients’ challenging behaviors, praise or reward positive behaviors, and provide clear consequences when children break a rule. While these strategies can sometimes be effective, there are good reasons to consider using a different approach most of the time with your autistic clients.

Imagine this scenario: you’re trying to get a child to come to the table to work. He ignores you and continues to play LEGOs. You remind him, “LEGO time is finished; it’s work time now” and you put the LEGOs away. The child lies down on the floor and begins to yell and kick. Because you know that paying attention to a behavior causes the behavior to increase, you ignore it and continue to say “LEGO time is finished; it’s work time now.”

He starts to kick you and flail more, so you add, “Kicking hurts. If you kick again you’ll go to the calm down corner.” The child continues kicking, so you move him to the calming area. When he is calm, you try again, “It’s work time” and the cycle starts again. You know that giving in teaches the child that he can use those behaviors to get his way, so you dig in your heels and insist he come to the table. You’re locked in a power struggle, and everyone is frustrated. But then you remind him that he’s working for candy, and he comes to the table.

Here’s one more scenario. You’re in a high school class with bright, verbal teenagers on the autism spectrum. One student is on his computer instead of doing his classwork. When you confront him, he says “One sec…this is really important.” You ask him to come out in the hallway, where you talk to him about what he was supposed to be doing and why he shouldn’t be using his computer. Soon you find yourself in a back-and-forth argument that ends with you taking the computer away and the child sulking back into the classroom completely shut down.

In either of these scenarios, did the child learn a new skill to help them cope with the demands of daily life? Did you build your trust and your relationship? Did the child’s own goals become more aligned with the goals you have for him?

The answer to all of these questions is probably no.

But the good news is, we don’t have to choose between getting stuck in power struggles or offering incentives to get things done. We also don’t have to choose between going head-to-head or simply letting behaviors go in order to avoid the battle. When we reconsider a behavioral approach and adopt an autism lens, we can teach new skills in a way that gets buy-in and reduces power struggles, while cultivating connection and motivation.

In a previous post I tackled the reasons you might reconsider using reinforcers and reward systems. In this post we’ll explore why you may not want to use planned ignoring in your work with autistic kids.

Planned ignoring is when you pretend to ignore a child’s challenging behaviors. The premise is, when we pay attention to a behavior we see more of it. When we ignore it, we extinguish it.

Reason # 1 to reconsider planned ignoring: The purpose of the behavior is not to get attention.

Planned ignoring works on the assumption that the purpose of the child’s behavior is to get attention. Therefore if we don't pay attention, they'll decide it doesn't work and will choose a different way to get attention in the future.

When my neurotypical toddler throws his plate of blueberries across the kitchen while I’m distracted by his cooing baby sister, the purpose of his behavior is most certainly to get my attention. And I may very well ignore or only minimally respond to the thrown plate (and make a mental note to give him tons of positive attention a little bit later).

But with my clients on the autism spectrum, more often than not, the challenging behaviors are not to get attention. When my autistic clients yell because I’ve interrupted their routine, they are not looking for attention, they are likely protesting the disruption of a routine that is important to them. When the high schooler calls out inappropriately in class, it’s probably not to get a laugh, but it may relate to missed social cues and trouble generalizing learned social skills. When a child has a meltdown in the grocery store, it may be due to sensory overload, not because they want more attention.

Planned ignoring works when the purpose of the behavior is to gain attention. Sometimes that can be the case with our clients on the spectrum, but if it’s not, it’s the wrong strategy.

Reason #2 to reconsider planned ignoring: Even if the purpose is to gain attention, extinguishing the behavior is not the most important thing we can do.

Imagine that you’re having a very bad day. When you come home you’re frustrated and on your last nerve. Your partner says something slightly off, and you lose it. Maybe you yell or cry or criticize, whatever your MO is in these bad moments.

Imagine that your partner ignores you so as not to reinforce this negative behavior. How do you feel? Likely abandoned and unsupported, in a moment that you were already feeling so low. And really you hoped your cranky mood would show your partner that you needed extra support.

So what do you need from your partner in this moment? You need them to show that they care for you even though you are acting like a jerk.

Young kids, with or without autism, deserve to see that they are loved and cared for even when they are falling apart. Not all kids are able or willing to take comfort in the middle of a meltdown, but staying nearby, acknowledging their feelings, and showing that you care nurtures emotional connection and security. Kids need attachment and unconditional care more than they need behaviora