The Yes Practice

N-o.  Those two letters trigger an emotional response in all of us.  Being told “no” changes the course of our thought processes.  Some people respond by accepting rejection and moving on.  Others will hear “no” as an opportunity for negotiation or reframing their request.  Some take it personally, as a repudiation of their ideas, their desires, or even their worth, and can react by lashing out or retreating inward.

Many people avoid saying “no” because of the unpredictable responses and give in to demands when they shouldn’t.  But while we often can’t foresee what an individual’s response to “no” will be, we know how people handle “yes.”  “Yes” is affirmation.  “Yes” is the moving things forward.  “Yes” brings about predictable results. This is why everyone—but especially children with autism—benefit from the practice of saying “yes.”

The desire to say “no” can be deeply ingrained in us. It may be the response we’ve heard all of our lives, the one that we’re used to and that seems most naturally appropriate. This was on display during a recent parent training, where the father of a six year-old with autism told me that he did not agree with the “yes” practice.  He shared that his son often asks for a cookie while his wife is making dinner, and he, the father, finds it necessary to say “no” because his son “needs to learn to wait for dinner.”  The child frequently throws tantrums by falling to the ground, kicking and screaming, and has to be carried to his room.  The father just wants the boy to learn that “no means no.”

For a child with autism, “no” doesn’t mean “I respect your request, but not now.” It means “absolutely not, under no circumstances, ever.”  “No” conveys a sense of finality and often results in children with autism instinctively raising their barriers.  I suggested to this father that he respond to his son’s desire by saying something like, “A cookie sounds great—I love cookies too.  What kind do you want?  Let’s have one after dinner—please set the table for dinner and the cookies.”

Although he was skeptical, the father followed this advice. He called a few days later to report that not only are the tantrums gone, but his son now enjoys setting the table every night.

Here’s another example.  A highly intelligent child with ASD, who had a history of engaging in severe and violent behaviors toward his mother anytime something he wanted, such as certain food items, were not in the house. When the child asked for the item, the mother would either have to drive a fairly far distance to purchase it or stay at home and bear the violent tantrum.  Once she implemented the yes practice, however, she responded to his demands by replying, “That’s a good idea! Let’s add it to the shopping list.” After a few instances, the child learned to problem-solve, and from then on, he independently documented the items he wanted on the list.

The goal of the “yes” practice is to treat children with dignity and respect.  Everyone, regardless of IQ or severity of symptoms, is capable of learning.  When we encounter a child throwing up barriers to learning, we should make it our responsibility to find out how they learn and adapt our methodology appropriately.  One of the most important changes we can make is to embrace the “yes” practice, and instead of offering a kneejerk negative response, create an opportunity for problem solving so that a child with autism can learn when, where, and under what circumstances his or her request can be fulfilled.

Saying “yes” does not have to mean giving in.  By engaging in the yes practice, you can redirect behavior in children without triggering those dreaded emotional barriers.  Because “yes” means the same thing to everyone.