Autism Spectrum Australia

Why ‘no’ is a choice

“It’s our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”

 – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 


Everyday people make choices, big and small, trivial and life-changing. Choices vary from whether or not to eat a double -coated chocolate biscuit, what movie to see, career or study options, and starting or ending relationships. In fact, researchers, conference speakers and book authors interested in how decisions are made, point out that there is often too much choice in our everyday lives.

For people with a disability, the opposite is often true. Research demonstrates that people with certain disabilities tend to make far fewer choices than others. One of the important choices available to people is the choice to refuse something by saying ‘no’.

In contrast to this (and despite the efforts of disability advocacy movements to promote the rights of people with disabilities to have their voice heard and to be independent), we parents, schools, services, health and medical professionals seem to find it problematic when people with disabilities find a way to say ‘no’.

In their assessment of choice, Kishi et al (1998) [Daily decision Making in Community Residences] found that saying ‘no’ is often not seen by others as a person with a disability making a choice. ‘No’ is not considered an option. Instead, people with disabilities who say ‘no’ tend to be labelled on a continuum of difficult from non-compliant to oppositional, defiant and disordered.

A developmental study ‘The Development of Negation in Early Child Language’ (1980) by Roy Pea reviewed the first 10 words used by toddlers. These were words like Mum, Dad, Hi, Bye, Drink etc which are mostly concrete & visual concepts. ‘No’ (note: not ‘yes’) is the only word in the top 10 that is more abstract. This shows that no is a powerful word and is used by those with limited communication skills to control their world. ‘No’ might also mean ‘I can’t’. The literature notes that oppositional behaviour sometimes reflects a person managing overwhelming anxiety. In short, there are many valid reasons why a person says ‘no’.

Many have also asked whether unthinking compliance is a trait that we want to instil in young people and see a danger in reducing individuality and difference. Perhaps a little non-compliance is a good thing? At what point does it become a problem? And for whom?

We must understand the importance of allowing people with disabilities to say ‘no’. Learning to assert your rights, express your opinion and make negative choices is an important part of developing self-advocacy and self-protection. Teaching people how and when to say ‘no’ should be a part of every family and school curriculum.

We should also understand our own role in non-compliance.  The more controlling we are in response to ‘no’, the more we butt heads, the more we become the problem and our ability to achieve cooperation decreases.


Here are some tips for people who support, or work with someone, on the autism spectrum:

Cooperation occurs in the context of a good relationship

The psychological literature refers to this as a ‘therapeutic alliance’ but this is the same for parents, school or other support staff. The more we like someone and the more they know that we like them, the more cooperation we will get.

Develop quality of life and the good behaviour game

Sometimes getting caught up in the everyday struggles means we forget the basics like noticing and reinforcing the positive behaviours we do see. Taking the time and effort to do so helps build the relationship and allows us to take a role as a ‘yea-sayer’, modelling the way we would like to be talked to.

Think function

There may be many reasons behind a ‘no’. If this is a behaviour of concern, a Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) approach would ask that we complete an assessment to work out why this behaviour is happening. 

Give control and choice

There’s some fun literature around increasing the likelihood of people saying ‘yes’. This has sometimes involved giving a reason for the request – ‘can I go ahead of you in the queue as I’m in a hurry?’. Studies of people using the phrase  ‘…but you are free to accept or refuse’ showed it doubled the likelihood of compliance with a request! The theme of the research seems to be how we ask is essential - that giving a reason or some control to the person disarms our instinctive rejection of being told what to do or agree to an unusual request.

Use a ‘Behavioural Momentum’ strategy

This strategy identifies a number of requests that have a high likelihood of being followed by the person – simple instructions, such as ‘give me 5’. These requests are used in a quick sequence and when met are followed by praise to build up to the type of tricky request that is typically refused – like taking a run up before jumping a high hurdle. This approach is described in more detail by Stephenson in MUSEC Briefing number 2.

I want to emphasise that I’m not saying we should just let people ‘get away’ with not responding to important requests - it’s good to have clear boundaries but it’s equally important to show good practice, flexibility and thoughtfulness in addressing issues.

Tom Tutton
Manager, Aspect Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) team 
Why ‘no’ is a choice