Do you feel like you are constantly battling with your child to get an interaction going? Does your child avoid your attempts at engaging in an activity? If so, it may be that you would benefit from learning how to follow your child’s lead. Often times, parents and teachers act in much more directive ways than responsive ways. Meaning, they are continually giving directions and asking questions and basically asking children to stop what they are doing to comply with such requests. Many children with autism have difficulty shifting their attention from one thing to another. Thus, it will help your child if you learn how to follow your child’s lead by joining your child in an ongoing, interest-based activity.
Following the child’s lead is a behavioral strategy utilized in ABA teaching programs such as Incidental Teaching and Pivotal Response Treatment. The strategy requires that you attempt to interact and engage with your child with the very thing that your child is attending to at the time. For example, if your child is playing in the sandbox at the park, join your child in the sandbox and begin by commenting on what the child is doing. You can say, “You are digging a big hole!” and wait for a response. If no response, you can either use prompting to encourage a response or make a different initiation such as, “Can I have a shovel too?” The key is that you are not going to ask your child to get out of the sandbox and go down the slide with a peer if your child is engaged in digging.
When you follow your child’s lead to promote interactions, your child is likely to feel less threatened. It is true that your child may still try to avoid interacting with you when you first start following the child's lead because your child may not be used to you joining in. However, with time, your child will get more and more comfortable with you joining in during ongoing, interest-based activities. You will have much less avoidance behaviors and more opportunities for successful interactions when your child recognizes that your initiations are not always focused on taking the child away from a desired activity.
You may be thinking, "I can't spend my life following my child's lead all of the time." No worries. As your child develops more advanced communication and social interaction skills and begins to display abilities to shift attention, you can begin to make more and more initiations that do not involve following your child’s lead.