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IF/THEN: A Strategy to Motivate Your Child with Autism

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This article was contributed by Nancy Popkin, Autism Resource Specialist in the Charlotte region and mom to a son with autism.

Back when my son was little and newly diagnosed with autism, he would play by looking at multiple books at a time spread out on the floor. When he was done, he would leave the books open on the floor and get a few more. Before long, our entire family room floor was carpeted in books. We would ask him to pick them up a couple of times, but he would ignore us. Then, in exasperation, one of us would say, “If you don’t put away your books, we will take them away.” The result? Crying, head-butting, and demanding, “Where will you put them? How long will you take them?” And the books remained on the floor.

But what did we want him to hear? We wanted him to hear, “If you put away your books, you can keep them.” But all he heard was the threat that we would take away his books. When we started to understand this, we realized we were going about it all wrong. We were still new to our son’s diagnosis of autism, and we were learning that to help him learn and understand pretty much anything, we had to figure out a way to add structure and make it visual for him.

if then done

And that is when I created the IF/THEN Chart.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Before approaching your child (young or adult) to deliver your ultimatum, fill out the chart.
    • The first IF/THEN statement should be what you want your child to do. So in our scenario, for the first statement we would write, “IF I put away my books, THEN I will keep them.”
    • The second IF/THEN statement will include the consequence should they not do the right thing. For the second statement, we put: “IF I do not put away my books, THEN mommy will take my books away and hide them where I cannot find them for 7 days.”
    • Notice that I always write the IF/THEN statements in the first person. Using “I” helps the person with autism read the statements and internalize the ideas as applying to himself/herself. This eliminates the need for the child or adult with autism to generalize, which is not a strength typically.
  2. Show your child the chart by covering up the bottom statement and only showing them the top portion. Read it with them and make sure they understand that if they put away their books, then they get to keep them.
  3. Then cover up the top statement and only show the bottom one. Make sure they understand that if they choose not to put away the books, the books will be taken away.
  4. Next, cover up the two IF parts of the chart and show your child the two THEN parts. Say, “Now you get to choose. Which do you want? Do you want to keep your books or do you want to have your books taken away? You choose.”
  5. Once they point to their choice, then cover up the full IF/THEN statement they did not chose, and read the one they chose with them again. Hopefully, they chose the outcome you are wanting, too. But if they do not, be prepared to follow through with the outcome they chose.

This strategy turned out to have several benefits. The first is that our son became much more willing to do things he didn’t necessarily want to do because he could see the benefit. It made more sense to him, and he had a choice of outcomes. He also liked that it eliminated the need for him to listen to me. Rather he could read it and process things much better. And this made us both calmer.

More importantly, this new tool forced me to stop and think before I spoke. I had to think carefully about what I wrote on the chart. I also had to think more about what was motivating to my son. I could put rewards in the THEN square, such as watch a video, go outside and swing, or get a Tootsie Roll, but I could also put statements such as “Mommy will be proud.”

A couple of things to keep in mind when using the chart:

  • First, make sure that the positive outcome in the THEN square is truly motivating for the person with autism. And write it in a positive manner. So instead of saying, “THEN I won’t be grounded” say, “THEN I will have extra free time and Mommy will be proud.”
  • Second, make sure the negative outcome is something that is reasonable and that you will be able to follow through with.
  • Third, it is not by accident that the IF/THEN chart is yellow. Our son was obsessed with yellow things back then, so making the chart yellow made it more acceptable to him. Incorporating the individual’s interest into the design of the chart can be motivating.
  • Finally, we laminated the IF/THEN chart so that we could use it over and over. It was durable, portable, and reusable. That said, keeping paper handy and folding it into quarters also works well.

Sometimes, we need to think like a person with autism to help them do what they need to do. Their brains work differently than those of a neuro-typical person, so we need to accommodate for that. When we account for characteristics such as a literal perspective of language, enhanced ability to understand information when it is presented visually, and the need to have control by having some choices, we offer the person with autism, our child, the opportunity to experience success. And we create more harmony in our relationships with them.

Nancy Popkin can be reached at or 704-894-9678.

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One Response

  1. ralakin says:

    This has been an amazing tool for my son. He has Autism and Oppositional Defiancy Disorder. It has made Speech and OT appointments go so much smoother. We don\’t have a lot of behavior issues at home so I haven\’t used it here, but if the need arises we will. Thank you!

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