Social Skills and Making Requests

by Mike Miklos

Once a child has begun approaching to receive things that are valuable, early social skill training can start in earnest. A good starting point is teaching the child to ask for what they want. The steps for doing so will not be spelled out here, but elsewhere on this webpage there are training videos and a training manual that give many ideas related to teaching the “mand” (a technical term for teaching children to ask for what they want.)

One point regarding teaching children to ask for what they want involves the important skill of learning to be polite. Being polite in social interactions can facilitate success in social interactions. Polite people are more likely to be accepted by others and to get what they want. A simple approach to teaching polite behavior, and one that is often implemented, is simply teaching the child to say “please” before they ask for things they want. Of course, most of us recognize those who say “please” “thank you” and “you’re welcome” under the right circumstances and with the right tone as being polite. However, just saying “please” or other “polite” words, does not make our behavior polite. I have heard children say “PRETZEL PLEASE!!!!!” with a shout that it is anything but polite. I have also heard children who have been taught to say “please” before everything they ask for, even when they are making repeated inappropriate requests. The “please” becomes a robotic chant and carries no sense of politeness toward the person with whom the child is interacting.

What I am suggesting is that it may be more important to teach children to ask for a wide range of things with an appropriate inflection than to get them to say “please”. This means that we do not respond to requests that are shouted, yelled, accompanied with stomps, etc. Rather we prompt and model calm asking and then respond to the request. It is more important to teach children to be able to ask for what they want when they want it and with a tone that is appropriate than it is to simply teach the word “please.” (of course, as children learn skills for asking, teaching how to appropriately say “please” is a worthy undertaking!) I also do not mean to imply that it will be easy to have a child model a proper intonation for asking. There are times where teaching to ask with the right inflection takes time and patience (and often the input of skilled teacher, speech and language clinician or behavior analyst.)

That leads us to another critical social skill. It is one we all have difficulty with from time to time. I am thinking of what the rock singer Mick Jagger wrote: “You can’t always get what you want.”

Once children learn to make requests, it becomes important to also teach them how to accept being told that they cannot have what they want. Notice that I call this a skill and not a matter of fate. Some people have suggested, “you can’t get what you want all the time and that is just the way it is.” In the real world you sometimes are able to get what you want if you make a big enough stink about it. It’s called an extinction effect and we have all at one time or another responded according to this principle. The extinction effect means that if something has worked for us in the past (for instance, asking for what we want), and all of a sudden it stops working, we tend to do one of two things or sometimes both. We either engage in the response that worked again but with greater strength (if asking calmly doesn’t work, we ask more loudly, possibly until we are screaming). At other times, we may do something different that has some chance of working (if asking with words doesn’t work, some people may attempt to be listened to by screaming or stomping, or grabbing.) The extinction effects then are changes in magnitude and variation of response. It is simply what occurs if we let things go their natural course. The downside of the extinction effect is that it is not much fun for the person interacting with the child.

So what is the best way to stop the screaming and stomping or grabbing? Well, sorry to say, it is to give in and let the child have what they were just told they couldn’t have. And guess what else? Not only does this lead to stopping the behavior at that time, it also leads, because it was effective, to the child being more likely to scream, stomp or grab in the future. So the easy route of stopping the problem behavior brought on by the child being told “no” is simply to say ‘yes”. The problem is that it then becomes more likely that the child will engage in problem behavior when told “no” in the future.

So how do you teach the child to accept being told no?

Here are the basic steps:
1. Identify items and activities that are preferred by the child. Be sure they are things that the child is able to ask for. Attempt to order these activities and items by the child’s level of preference. Teaching a child to accept no will start with working on accepting being told no for items that are not high on the preference list.
2. Throughout the process of teaching a child to accept no, continue to provide many opportunities for the child to ask for an receive preferred items without being told no.
3. Begin teaching accepting no by deliberating setting up circumstances wherein a small percentage of requests will result in a trial to accept being told no. A. Start with an item that is preferred but is not the child’s favorite item. B. When the child asks for the item, simply say “no you can’t have that, but you can have this.” At this time present another preferred item. In most circumstances, The item should be of equal or lesser value. If the child accepts the second item, after a short period of time, make the item that was originally requested available. C. Gradually, with success in accepting no, increase the time between being told no and the original item again being available. Also gradually teach accepting no for more preferred items.
4. Be prepared for the child to reject both items or to possibly emit problem behavior ( like the extinction effects described above.) If this happens do not offer an alternative, simply direct the child to some other task or, if it can be done safely, ignore the child until they are calm.
5. At first teach accepting no at a variety of times during the day, but plan on doing so. Be sure with time to fade how often an alternative is offered. In other words, eventually the choice of “you can’t have that, but you can have this” will be faded. A major trick of success with this process is making it unpredictable when: A. A child will get what they ask for B. The child will be told no but be given an alternative C. The child will be told no with no alternative offered
6. Eventually begin telling the student “no” in real life circumstances.
7. Keep in mind that during the time in which you are teaching accepting no, circumstances will likely arise that require a child to be told no. Some suggestions for dealing with such circumstances include: A. If possible keep an alternative option available B. Plan on keeping the child safe, but also plan on being consistent, when at all possible, on not giving the child the item or activity after problem behaviors have occurred. However, the examples of social skills discussed in this blog are simply starting points. (thanks to Dr. Vincent Carbone of the Carbone Clinic for developing the outline of basic steps described here.)

Teaching requesting behaviors, teaching polite requesting, and teaching the child to accept being told no can all be key aspects of teaching social skills for many children with autism.

Well, I said earlier that teaching social skills is not easy! But I also stressed how important socials skills are. Look for further ideas on social skills training in upcoming blogs!

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