How to Teach Autistic Children to Stop Touching Others

By Nicole Ubinger
Behavorial management techniques help to teach acceptable behaviors.
Behavorial management techniques help to teach acceptable behaviors.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a collection of disorders where the primary characteristics include problems with social interaction and communication. This group of disorders includes Autism, Asperger's Disorder, and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Individuals with autism often encounter problems with understanding social cues from those around them and difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. It is not uncommon for those with autism to have problems making and maintaining eye contact, and to have trouble understanding emotions and what they mean. People with autism also function best when they have a clear expectation of their routines as repetitive behaviors are common with individuals with this disorder.

Use a behavioral based approach. Use conditioning, including reward and punishment, to change the child's response to the environment. Replace an unwanted behavior with a new acceptable behavior.

Set clear expectations. When taking a behavior based approach set a clear expectation for what the child is doing wrong. If your autistic child is touching others when they should not, you need to make it clear that this is not acceptable behavior. Statements need to be communicated in a calm voice tone and need to be clear and behavior based, for example "Timmy, we do not hug strangers."

Use visible non-verbal cues for reinforcement.
Use visible non-verbal cues for reinforcement.

Use nonverbal cues to reinforce the concept. Since children with autism have a hard time understanding social cues but do understand routine and structure, create a poster board the clearly states the rule "No Touching" or "Keep Hands to Yourself." Use pictures to illustrate the concept if the child does not have reading skills. It can be helpful to have the child make this poster with you. The poster will serve as a nonverbal reminder for the child as to what the behavioral expectations are.

Replace the unwanted behavior with a new behavior. After you have set the expectation of what you do not want, you must communicate to the child what you want them to do instead. If the problem is that they are hugging strangers, tell them to shake hands instead. If the problem is touching other students or their siblings to get attention, tell them to call the other person by name and wait for her to say "what." It is important that your instructions are clear and concise.

Practice and reinforce the new behavior. When a child does not follow the rule of not touching others calmly remind him of the rule and state what he should do instead. For example "Timmy, we do not hug strangers, stop hugging and shake hands instead."

Rewards are key to changing behavior.
Rewards are key to changing behavior.

Reward the child for using the appropriate behavior. When the child follows the rule, or corrects the unacceptable behavior when prompted, praise the child or use tangible items such as candy or playing with a toy to encourage the child to repeat the preferred behavior in the future.

Things You Will Need

  • Poster Board
  • Markers

Tip

Since children with autism often do not understand social cues it will be helpful for them if you use associated learning with them. This means you will help them understand that those around them will react better to them in social situations if they are not touching others when they should not. For example, "Timmy, I see that you shook Mr. Smith's hand when he came into the room, I could tell that he liked that because he smiled at you and shook your hand back". This not only reinforces the behavior that you want but will also help them understand the social cues that they are seeing in others.

Warning

Be aware there is a difference between Autism and Asperger's Disorder. While they are within the same grouping in the DSM-IV TR they have a different set of symptoms. It is also important to note that there are differences in cognitive functioning (the child's ability to learn and apply knowledge) between people who have Autism and Asperger's Disorder. You will want to make sure the behavioral management you are applying to your child is at the appropriate learning level.

About the Author

Nicole Ubinger started writing professionally in 2010. She works as a college instructor of psychology and in the Family First of Michigan Program, an intervention program focusing on family preservation by teaching life and parenting skills. Ubinger received her Bachelor of Science in psychology from Central Michigan University and a Master of Science in counseling psychology from Capella University.