Teaching Appropriate Requesting

Teaching Appropriate Requesting as a Way of Reducing Challenging Behaviors

Often, children with Autism demonstrate a wide variety of ways of communicating their wants and needs. In the earliest form, babies request attention, food, or a diaper change by crying; they quickly learn that most parents will respond to crying. This is a natural form of communication that serves an important purpose for babies. However, after time, most children learn other ways of communicating. For instance, as a baby grows they may learn that they receive lots of attention for walking up to their parents with outstretched arms. This new behavior now replaces crying as an effective way of gaining attention, and is a more socially accepted way of communicating a need for attention.

It can be challenging for parents when their child does not naturally pick up on these more appropriate ways of communicating. Some children may not independently learn these skills, and instead may require extra support and practice to do so.

Limit Challenges & Teach Appropriate Requesting

While teaching children to request, it is important to a) select an appropriate way of communicating that is conducive with their current skill level, b) teach the child the appropriate way of communicating, and c) consistently require the child to request using the more appropriate way. Consider a situation in which a child wants food but does not have the words to communicate. They may go through a variety of behaviors while trying to tell their parents what they want, including pointing, guiding their parents to the kitchen, or trying to open the fridge. If the child does not get what they want (usually because parents are busy guessing what their child wants), we may see the child escalate to whining or crying. At this point, the parent may find the item that the child requested. However, this can be problematic, as we may have now set a “new standard” for that child, such that they may escalate to more extreme behaviors such as whining or crying in the future because they got what they wanted for doing so. Examples like this are often why we see children demonstrate more challenging behaviors when they are attempting to communicate their wants/needs.

It may be beneficial to identify a behavior that is appropriate for the child’s skill level and to begin teaching the child this new way of requesting. For instance, in the example above, the child does not independently vocalize while requesting but may have the fine motor skills to begin learning sign language. Therefore, it may be beneficial to initially prompt the child to sign “eat” as an approximation of the vocal word “eat” before they receive food. Then, once the child is consistently signing “eat”, parents can begin to require this request each time the child wants food, while simultaneously ignoring any inappropriate requests (e.g., whining, crying). By teaching the vocal word or sign “eat”, this allows the caretaker/parent to narrow down what the child wants, he/she is hungry. Once “eat” is being used functionally, specific foods items would be taught.

Although this is a simple description of a complex series of behaviors, the general outline can help parents identify areas in their child’s lives that could benefit from more appropriate communication. Whether the child cries to gain attention from their mother, or the child wants escape from a difficult task, it is important to teach and require appropriate ways of communication.


Teaching requests to reduce challenging behaviors:

  • Identify what your child wants
  • Identify a skill-appropriate replacement behavior
  • Teach the appropriate replacement behavior
    • Contrive situations for your child to practice this replacement behavior
      • For instance, if you are teaching the child to say “eat” you may consider holding their plate of food and prompting them to say “eat” prior to having each bite. This is a quick way of teaching the association between the word “eat” and receiving food.
    • Ignore the challenging behaviors and prompt the new appropriate behavior.
      • If your child whines for food at any point, do not provide food but instead prompt them to say “eat”. Then, you would immediately provide them with the requested food.