Excerpt from Understanding the Challenge of "No" for Children with Autism: Communication (Colette McNeil)


No running, No jumping, No talking, No shoes – No shirt – No service.  Speaking in this style of negative phrasing is as common and ingrained as answering the telephone with “Hello.” To the majority of society, the message is direct, concise, and typically easily understood.  

Unfortunately, children with autism struggle with deciphering statements requesting the negation of an action. While it is not impossible for these children to learn some regularly used negative statements, it takes more effort and exposure to the exact phrasing to produce understanding.

If we look carefully at the information provided by current researchers and practitioners of autism we could pinpoint some of the children’s receptive communication difficulties. Autism causes deficits to varying degrees in the ability to understand verbal sounds and attach meaning to them.  

Further, if the children do understand the individual spoken words, they may not be able to fully process strings of auditory information or words in sentences. Many children with autism will often be able to comprehend and respond to either the first word, or more likely. the last word of a sentence. It is my experience that children with autism most often respond to the very last thing they hear.

In the story above, Mr. Compos is calling out to the students, “No running,” and the students are only processing, “Running.” Therefore, they gleefully continue onward.  

For the children, this situation is not unlike test takers answering questions written in the double negative form. Mr. Compos is requesting the negation of running and expecting the students to decipher this negation and translate it into the correct response.

When speaking in a negation of action style, we are asking the recipient not only to process the sounds into meaningful concepts but also to employ critical thinking skills to decipher an indirect message. Further, if the children do understand the statement, “No running,” to mean cease the action, there is no information given that indicates what other action is expected. What is the request, “no running,” asking the student to do? Skip, gallop, walk, tiptoe, crawl, stop?  

While the message may seem clear to the speaker, the receiving child with autism is often oblivious to the full implication of the statement.  In this example, the students hold the responsibility for understanding the complicated message and are provided a consequence for getting it wrong.  Mr. Compos repeatedly gives the students time-out for responding incorrectly to his instruction. 

Tell the students what to do versus what not to do.
Barbara Bloomfield

The approach of Miss Leaky, his colleague, provides the students a clear message of what to do instead of what not to do. Miss Leaky accepts the responsibility for choosing her vocabulary carefully to communicate at the comprehension level of the students. Miss Leaky’s statement, “Walk,” provides the class the exact action being requested and does so using only one clearly spoken word.


Colette's book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle. It is also available at 40% discount from the MSI Press webstore (use code ad40).

Meet Colette

Colette McNeil aspires to develop confidence in individuals with autism by expanding the perspectives of their parents, families, teachers, and caregivers.

Experience: Colette McNeil has worked with children and adults with disabilities for 30 years.  She spent 20 of those years teaching students with autism and related disorders ages 3-22. Additionally, Colette has a close relationship with her nephew with autism who is in his 20’s
Education: Ms. McNeil holds a Master of Arts Degree in Psychology. Further, she is a prolific reader of Positive Psychology literature and embeds her learning into her daily interactions and coaching-consultation practices.
Business: Through her business Shared Perspectives Support, Colette McNeil provides private coaching-consultation services to families struggling with Autism and developmental disorders in the Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties of California, USA.
 Visit her website for more information at SharedPerspecitvesSupport.com
Read more about the book here.

Book reviews:

From Readers' Favorite:
This gem of a little book is

  • Enlightening;
  • Helpful in concrete ways;
  • Emotionally supportive; and
  • Just plain engaging!

From MidWest Book Review:
a "must-have" for parents with and educators responsible for autistic children,
highly recommended.

Read other posts by and about Colette McNeil and her book.


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