Helping Children with Special Needs Express Preferences and Make Choices

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused


We all have preferences regarding what clothes to wear, food to eat, or movies to watch. As adults, most of us can make choices based on our preferences. Children, however, have less choice because parents and other caregivers have the responsibility to provide appropriate limits and to help steer them toward the safest or best decisions. It can be a delicate balance to determine when to control a situation or decision and when to allow children to make their own decisions and experience the possible negative consequences.
Parents of children with disabilities may face even more difficulty surrounding decisions regarding choice because their sons and daughters may not have acquired the ability to make choices on their own and may need to be taught some of these skills.
Teaching skills surrounding choice to children with special needs can involve working to improve communication in general or helping them learn how to make a choice when presented with different options. Children with disabilities may not always understand the potential consequences of a given choice, which makes parents’ decisions around when to allow choice more difficult.
In addition, it can be easy to accidentally limit a child’s choices. For example, some people put the toothpaste on their brush and then get it wet before brushing their teeth. Other people may get the toothbrush wet and then put toothpaste on. Since either way produces a ready-to-use toothbrush, either approach is acceptable. However, because the person providing guidance is accustomed to doing it one way, it may be easy to unintentionally make the choice for the child. Awareness of these little opportunities for a child to make a choice is important.
There are other ways to present choices that will improve the experiences of children with disabilities. Research indicates that providing choice, even when it is between two options that the child does not like, increases compliance and reduces difficult behaviors. You can also provide choice by allowing someone to choose the order of tasks to complete. (e.g. “Would you like to take the garbage out before we walk the dog or afterwards?”)
There will always be times when choice is not available, or is simply not appropriate. When that is the case, providing rules ahead of time may help. It may also be helpful to explain when the desired object or activity will become available. For example, if your child is asking to go to the park while you’re at the dentist with your other child, you can be clear that the park is not currently available, but it will be when the appointment is over. For some children, you may need to use a visual schedule or something similar to help them understand. If the thing being requested is not going to be available any time soon, giving an appropriate alternative is another possibility. For example, maybe you can’t go to the park, but instead, your child will get to go home and play with his or her favorite toy.
Some children with disabilities may have limited preferences. This can make providing options and alternatives difficult for parents. Sometimes, repeated presentations or items or activities can increase preference over time. For example, if your child doesn't seem to enjoy an age-appropriate video, the repeated presentation of that video over time may increase your child's preference for it.
It is also possible to increase preference by pairing something preferred with something less preferred. For example, allowing your child to watch a favorite video while playing with a new toy that he isn’t particularly interested in may increase his interest in that toy over time.
A good rule of thumb is to provide choice where possible and provide guidance where it is not. For some kids, explaining why a choice isn’t available at a certain time may also be helpful. If your child is having difficulty with preferences and choices, you may want to seek guidance from a behavior analyst.

By Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA  

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit