June 15th, 2015 | Mona Delahooke, Ph. D.
** Updated September 2020
Not long ago, at an autism treatment forum, I heard about a painful and frustrating episode a teenager recalled from his childhood. At five years old, the boy was 45 minutes into an autism treatment session when he ran to the window, pressed his nose against it, and stared intently at the family car. Unable to use spoken language or even point or gesture, he was simply trying to express to his behavior therapist and his mother that he was weary of the incessant drills and ready to go home.
The therapist didn’t get the message, dismissing his attempt to communicate as mere “stimming”—that is, a form of meaningless self-stimulation. “He’s fixating on the car,” she told the boy’s mother. “Let’s ignore and try to get him back to the table.” Now 17, the boy recalls his great frustration trying to make himself understood.
The therapist wasn’t being intentionally harsh. She was merely following an approach that uses reinforcement and other strategies such as “planned ignoring” to help children learn and acquire new, “adaptive” behaviors. Over two decades working with children, I have grown increasingly concerned about the use of planned ignoring, also known as tactical ignoring.
Why? It doesn’t build social and emotional development when we ignore a child’s attempts to communicate. Doing so doesn’t help the child, but can fuel frustration, anger and resentment. We must ask ourselves, if behaviors are a form of communication, what message are we giving by ignoring? Just as we wouldn’t ignore a fellow adult’s attempts to communicate, it’s time that we look below the surface and question whether this technique is appropriate for children.