Using words to describe behavior to help autistic child

The skill of Observe and Describe is a simple, clear way to describe behavior your child is doing, whether positive or negative. The skill helps to avoid escalation, labeling your child (lousy, good), or asking aimless questions (what were you thinking?) that do not help your child learn what they are doing right or wrong. Autistic children especially have a difficult time understanding what is not explicitly stated and interpreting phrases that have ambiguous meanings such as, idioms or metaphors. This is why Observe and Describe is so important to help your child understand the behaviors you are addressing while preventing Autism meltdowns in the future.

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The three steps of Observe and Describe are:

1. Observe the Behavior

Behaviors are what people do or say, this includes anything that can be seen, heard, or measured. An example of a behavior you might observe is: your child ignores you and walks away anytime you tell her to pick up her toys. When first learning the skill start by observing all types of behaviors that your child does, even if it’s a simple behavior like “my child is lining up all the blue blocks in a row.” Then when you can find specific behaviors to observe, focus on words to describe actions aloud (step 3) including those negative behaviors you want to correct and the positive behaviors you want to reinforce.

2. Get your child’s attention

Calmly call your child or softly touch/turn them to face you. Autistic children have a tendency to become fixated on what they’re doing, even if they have stopped participating in the activity. Make sure you have their full attention before using the skill. Eye contact and not following social conversation rules, such as interrupting, is also a common symptom of Autism. Remind and require your child to maintain eye contact with you and listen without interrupting whenever you are using the skill. Providing these extra interactions will help them practice appropriate social skills.

3. Describe what you see

Once you have observed a behavior you want to point out to your child and you have your child’s attention, use clear language to describe what you see. When describing behavior avoid using labels such as “You’re such a good boy.” Good is a vague label that doesn’t tell the child exactly what they did to earn the praise. Instead use a descriptive phrase based on exactly what they did “You turned the TV off right when I asked you to, without complaining.” Use the Describing Behavior Exercise worksheet (LINK) to practice giving specific descriptions. When using Observe and Describe with your Autistic child use words that fit their language abilities. Some children with Autism use overly formal language and others have low verbal skills. Whatever the functioning of your child ensure that the words you use match the words they use so they understand what you are describing to them.

Practice, practice, practice

In order to implement Observe and Describe into your daily routine, practice is essential. There are many ways to practice observing specific behaviors and then turning your observations into a description. Turn on the TV and start observing behaviors, then pause or mute the show and describe what you saw. You can also make use of the skill during one-on-one time with your child. Have them choose a game or activity they want to do and observe as they play and describe what they are doing. Many other activity ideas are explained under the Observe and Describe lesson on our website. Also include spontaneously role-plays throughout the day with yourself in the mirror or with another adult so you become comfortable describing behaviors.

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Supporting children with Autism is easier with the behavior skill of Observe and Describe. It is a simple first skill to use and it can improve their behavior quickly. When you are able to give clear behavior descriptions of the negative behaviors you don’t approve of and the positive behaviors you want them to continue, then your child will be more likely to change their behavior without high emotions and resistance. Observe and Describe removes the tendency for power struggles because there are no added comments or labels for your child to argue with. As you use the skill you’ll also notice your Autistic child begin to speak more clearly to you as they model your behavior.

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