Should You Be Teaching Apologizing to Children with Autism?

I had a question come in last week from Amy who is a participant in our online course and community and she said she had an idea for a future video blog. She said, “Could you address the issue of having or not having kids with autism apologize for their behavior following a behavior? When is a prompted apology appropriate and when does it just reinforce the negative behavior?” So today I’m going to give Amy some advice and I’ll hopefully help all my other readers understand when you should be teaching apologizing or prompt a child with an “I’m sorry” or a different kind of apology.

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Kids that are served by my courses and even my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach, are typically kids with pretty significant language disorders as well. We use the VB-MAPP assessment as a base within our Verbal Behavior Bundle of courses. VB-MAPP is a tool by Dr. Mark Sundberg who wrote the forward for my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach. Within the VB-MAPP, are language abilities of 3 levels, 0 to 18 months old, 18 months to 30-month-old and then 30 months old up to 48 months old. This advice that I’m going to give definitely depends on the language ability of the child. A child no matter what the chronologic age, if they are functioning within the VB-MAPP, it’s going to be a different recommendation then I would give someone who’s fully conversational.

In general, whether you’re talking about a child who’s not conversational or someone who is conversational before we treat any problem behavior, we would want to do an assessment. That could be a one-page assessment like I created several years ago now, a VB-MAPP assessment, or a higher level assessment for kids that have higher language abilities. If the child is within the VB-MAPP, especially level 1, level 2, or up to 30 months of age, the child is not going to be able to comprehend the action to apologize and I think it would probably be a very bad idea to chain that together with a behavior.

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The other thing, that as a behavior analyst I want to point out, is that you also need to understand the functions of behavior. If it’s an escape, say it’s my child and the child hits me when I say it’s time to go up and take a bath. Me slowing down and saying, “no, that’s not nice, you don’t hit mommy. Now you have to say ‘I’m sorry’, don’t hit mommy.” All that nonsense is slowing down the bathtime routine. In that case, saying sorry and working on that within the context of an escape behavior would not be recommended. It would probably end up delaying the bathtime and reinforcing the hitting behavior.

Even if the function is access to tangibles or attention, say the child is playing with his brother and he wants the toy, or he wants mom’s attention from the other room. Hitting his brother is going to get the brother’s attention, the brother will probably start screaming, and mom’s going to come in and try to figure out what’s going on. So at that point, the hitting is over, the brother is screaming, and the mom comes in. If she now decides to chain in, “Johnny say you’re sorry to your brother, that’s not nice. No hitting.” That’s giving Johnny a lot of attention. So whether it’s an escape or access to tangibles or attention, chaining an “I’m sorry”, without really knowing that that is a part of the plan is really almost always a bad idea.

The way this happens is that things get chained together. So if I’m Johnny, I get mad, I hit somebody, and I say “I’m sorry”, then I delay the task, get out of the task, or I might even get the toy that I wanted. I definitely get mom’s attention. So hitting actually gets more likely to occur, and gets shaped up by just intervening with some kind of sorry treatment.

As I said, my Verbal Behavior Bundle covers functions of behavior and helps both parents and professionals learn what to do and how to figure out a plan based on the child’s strengths and needs. If you would like to learn more about my online courses and community, you can attend a free workshop at I hope you enjoyed this short video blog on teaching children with autism to apologize, and if you did give me a thumbs up, leave me a comment and share it with someone else who might benefit. I’ll see you right here next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?