How to teach autistic children to stop touching others

Written by nicole ubinger
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How to teach autistic children to stop touching others
Behavorial management techniques help to teach acceptable behaviours. (hands image by Jane September from

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a collection of disorders where the primary characteristics include problems with social interaction and communication. This group of disorders includes Autism, Asperger's Disorder, and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Individuals with autism often encounter problems with understanding social cues from those around them and difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. It is not uncommon for those with autism to have problems making and maintaining eye contact, and to have trouble understanding emotions and what they mean. People with autism also function best when they have a clear expectation of their routines as repetitive behaviours are common with individuals with this disorder.

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  1. 1

    Use a behavioural based approach. Use conditioning, including reward and punishment, to change the child's response to the environment. Replace an unwanted behaviour with a new acceptable behaviour.

  2. 2

    Set clear expectations. When taking a behaviour based approach set a clear expectation for what the child is doing wrong. If your autistic child is touching others when they should not, you need to make it clear that this is not acceptable behaviour. Statements need to be communicated in a calm voice tone and need to be clear and behaviour based, for example "Timmy, we do not hug strangers."

  3. 3

    Use nonverbal cues to reinforce the concept. Since children with autism have a hard time understanding social cues but do understand routine and structure, create a poster board the clearly states the rule "No Touching" or "Keep Hands to Yourself." Use pictures to illustrate the concept if the child does not have reading skills. It can be helpful to have the child make this poster with you. The poster will serve as a nonverbal reminder for the child as to what the behavioural expectations are.

    How to teach autistic children to stop touching others
    Use visible non-verbal cues for reinforcement. (isolated note on board image by Chad McDermott from
  4. 4

    Replace the unwanted behaviour with a new behaviour. After you have set the expectation of what you do not want, you must communicate to the child what you want them to do instead. If the problem is that they are hugging strangers, tell them to shake hands instead. If the problem is touching other students or their siblings to get attention, tell them to call the other person by name and wait for her to say "what." It is important that your instructions are clear and concise.

  5. 5

    Practice and reinforce the new behaviour. When a child does not follow the rule of not touching others calmly remind him of the rule and state what he should do instead. For example "Timmy, we do not hug strangers, stop hugging and shake hands instead."

  6. 6

    Reward the child for using the appropriate behaviour. When the child follows the rule, or corrects the unacceptable behaviour when prompted, praise the child or use tangible items such as candy or playing with a toy to encourage the child to repeat the preferred behaviour in the future.

    How to teach autistic children to stop touching others
    Rewards are key to changing behaviour. (Reward image by Ruslan Khabirov from

Tips and warnings

  • Since children with autism often do not understand social cues it will be helpful for them if you use associated learning with them. This means you will help them understand that those around them will react better to them in social situations if they are not touching others when they should not. For example, "Timmy, I see that you shook Mr. Smith's hand when he came into the room, I could tell that he liked that because he smiled at you and shook your hand back". This not only reinforces the behaviour that you want but will also help them understand the social cues that they are seeing in others.
  • Be aware there is a difference between Autism and Asperger's Disorder. While they are within the same grouping in the DSM-IV TR they have a different set of symptoms. It is also important to note that there are differences in cognitive functioning (the child's ability to learn and apply knowledge) between people who have Autism and Asperger's Disorder. You will want to make sure the behavioural management you are applying to your child is at the appropriate learning level.

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