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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Kaminski, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA(VA)

Please, Be Thankful: Being Autistic and Being Polite.

Fall-themed items spelling Give Thanks

Child: “Juice”

Adult: “Juice, what?”

Child: no response

Adult: “Juice, please”

Child: “Juice, please”

Adult: “Good job saying please!!”

Don't Be Rude

Autistic children face a lot of social hurdles, so it makes sense that we don’t want to add people thinking they are “rude” or “ungrateful” to that list. And it is pretty common to start teaching manners to neurotypically-developing children early in their language development. But for a child with communication delays, being able to communicate their wants and needs regularly and simply is more important. At least for a while.

Too Soon?

While the goal of the above exchange may have been to teach the child to ask for things they need or want, politely, the learning outcome may be less than ideal. According to Dr. Mary Barbera, there are multiple issues with teaching manners too early. For example, if we start teaching “please” too early, we may fall into a pattern of accepting “please” when we should actually require the child to ask for the specific item. Dr. Barbera provides an example: If a child reaches for a cookie, but only says ”please,” we may still give them the cookie because they asked politely. If that happens enough, the child will be less likely to use the name of the item to request it and rely on using just “please” to get what they want.

Equally important, in my opinion, however, is that words like “please” and “thank you” add extra effort for a child who is already struggling to communicate. When the goal is more frequent use of language to communicate, adding effort means that we are risking the child deciding that the effort isn’t worth the reward.

"We need to be mindful of not focusing on words like "please" and "thank you" before he or she can tell us what they want and need" – Dr. Mary Barbera

Say it Like You Mean It

Words and phrases like “please” and “thank you” have meaning to us as adults with long histories of communicating and interacting with other people. As we matured and developed relationships, we learned that these types of words convey feelings like appreciation towards others.

But to an early learner, they are, honestly, just words that you are requiring them to say. Imagine this scenario, You are an early language learner and want a juice box from the refrigerator. You know how to open the refrigerator door and can easily get the juice box. But, to teach you communication and social skills, I block the way to the refrigerator and make you ask me (“Juice, please”) to get you a juice box and then make you show appreciation for my help by saying “thank you.” Except that from your perspective, I didn’t help. I slowed you down because you could have gotten that treat by yourself, faster and easier. Even though I was hoping to teach you to appreciate help from others, you don’t connect “please” and “thank you” to feelings of gratitude; those words are just part of the interaction pattern that you need to use to get what you want.

It’s a Question of When, not If

The solution is to first give communication time to develop. When your child can independently ask for things, including relatively specific things (“apple juice box” rather than just “juice,” for example), then it might be time to begin fostering true appreciation which they can express through use of “please” and “thank you.” Your child is now in a better position to understand why it is important to use “please” and “thank you,” although because social understanding is involved, it will still take intention and effort to teach. But, in the end, you are not only teaching your child manners, you are teaching important things about how to nurture relationships with other people. And when they learn that, both your child and you will be thankful.


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