Your child has autism and is noncompliant. What do you do?


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Noncompliance means exactly what it says — refusal to comply with a request.  As you might expect, noncompliance is fairly common among children and teens.  With children with autism, it may be particularly important to establish compliance early on in an intensive ABA treatment program, and several methods have been shown to work, but not all of the time.

A study by Fischetti and others, in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, sought to directly compare some of these methods to see which produced the most compliance in response to a request to put a toy away.  Specifically, they compared: (a) reduction in response effort, (b) differential reinforcement + effort reduction, (c) guided compliance + effort reduction, and (d) guided compliance + differential reinforcement + effort reduction.

The reduction in response effort was achieved by changing the distance of the toy bin.  Differential reinforcement involved delivering an edible contingent on compliance.  Guided compliance involved hand-over-hand guidance to help the child put the toy in the bin.

The results?  It depends on which of the three children you are referring. For one child, a reduction in effort worked up to a point, but worked better with differential reinforcement.  The same treatment was ineffective for the two other children, however.  For one of the children, guided compliance was necessary, and for the other differential reinforcement needed to be added to the guided compliance to see meaningful results.

Remember, ABA interventions are not a one-size-fits all approach.  You must tailor your program to the individual needs of the people you are working with.

We would love to hear your stories of working with noncompliance in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at

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  1. I would like to suggest that we use the term “NOT a good participator” rather than “noncompliant” which implies that the child has the problem behavior. When in reality, the adults and peers are likely the ones who reinforced the undesirable behaviors. Otherwise, the suggested comments are very useful in this blog. Particularly, the one that “ABA interventions are not one-size-fits all approach”. In fact, the development of a participator repertoire should be considered across instructional conditions (e.g., Teacher/Parent directed, Peer-directed, and Semi-directed). A functional analysis is required to determine the likely source(s) of the reinforcement that are maintaining the participator repertoire as well as the “non-participator repertoire”.

  2. We use the word “non-compliant” because it adequately describes the set of behaviors. For example, in a situation where a young boy refuses to sit in his assigned seat, he is engaging in “non-compliant behavior.” The child is not “non-compliant,” rather it describes the behavior in question. Not all instructions (and thus, not all opportunities for noncompliance) require participation (e.g., refusal to complete items on a worksheet is noncompliant behavior, but I would not say that he’s refusing to participate in worksheet time).

    I think it’s important to remember why we choose the terminology that we do. It’s so that we are concise and clear. This is unlike the situations with “manic depressive” or “shell shock,” in that those terms were changed to reduce ambiguity. Just my two cents.

  3. You can use a same age peer to ask him do something….it helps and give an example…or do it together as we are playing and gradually fade the aid…

  4. I think it’s sometimes helpful to apply the Dead Mans test to this situation. If a dead man can do it – it’s not a behaviour. So the only thing a dead man can do is be non compliant….I do agree with the comments above about the term “non compliant”….

    Another comment that I had about this is that as professionals we have to be so careful about teaching compliance to Kids with ASD. The reasons are below:
    – Some individuals with ASD have a hard time discriminating between when to be compliant and when not to be compliant ( eg if someone makes an inappropriate request). When we teach Kids with ASD to be compliant we sometimes increase their vulnerability and expose them to potentially dangerous situations.

    – Kids who are not diagnosed with ASD are not always compliant. They need to have the buy-in of why they need to follow rules, why they listen to their regular classroom teacher and not supply teacher. So we also want to try to teach that to kids with ASD – discrimination training and not “compliance”.
    – Workong with adolescence and adults with ASD, it very noticeable how they lack self-advocacy skills. – example. They eat the food that they are given – even if they hate it. They won’t say no to something they don’t like, and they won’t ask to do something differently but sometimes will have a meltdown instead. In my opinion sometimes we punish the Kids’ self advocacy skills by reinforcing compliance and may fail to teach them how to stand up for themselves.

    Just some food for thought.


  5. I agree with Raneta, “Some individuals with ASD have a hard time discriminating between when to be compliant and when not to be compliant ( eg if someone makes an inappropriate request). When we teach Kids with ASD to be compliant we sometimes increase their vulnerability and expose them to potentially dangerous situations.” This in my opinion is a discrimination skill and not no compliance. Possibly the individual, cannot understand why they should follow rule governed behavior, and yes if they are, just reinforced to comply, they could be venerable to predators.

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