Is Your Child Not Responding to Their Name? Here’s What You Can Do

One of the hallmark signs of autism is a child not responding to their name. I know when Lucas was a young child, he would not respond to his name and that was a warning sign of autism. So, I now know, as a behavior analyst, how to teach response to your name. 

My book, The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders, describes a procedure for how to teach responding to your name on page 106. It was something I came up with for Lucas and I’ve used it for many, many children. 

Child Not Responding to their Name

One of the biggest things about teaching a child to respond to their name is to stop using their name so much. When Lucas’s first consultant came to our home, we had Lucas in the room and my parents were there, the three therapists that were going to work with him were there, and I was there. We were all talking to Lucas, saying, “Lucas, come here, Lucas, touch your nose.” The consultant told us to stop saying Lucas. He was the only child there and it wasn’t helping the situation. 

I saw this all the time in schools and at home. “Johnny touch your nose, Johnny, come here.” I also heard a lot of names paired with negative responses. “Johnny, no. Stop. Johnny, I said no.” So, we are actually pairing a child’s name in either condition, whether we’re yelling at the child or reprimanding the child, we’re pairing it with a negative or pairing it with a demand. “Johnny, touch your nose” is pairing a name with aversive control.  

Teach a Child to Respond to their Name

Instead, we want to pair the child’s name with a positive response. They can be playing or stimming or whatever the child’s doing alone, and we want to gently tap them from behind and say the child’s name. We say, “Johnny,” and then we present a reinforcer. That can be an edible reinforcer, bubbles, an exaggerated face, or even peekaboo. 

We can also do this throughout the day when we are delivering reinforcement. So, the child says “push” while on the swing. Then we can say, “Johnny push, Johnny likes a push.” I also used to make up songs for Lucas. 

Pair names with good things, not with aversive control, not with no. Start pairing the name when the child’s already happy and engaged. Use edibles or bubbles to reinforce it. Remember: tap, say the name, and reinforce. 

Is your child not responding to their name?
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Reinforcing their Name

You’re going to want to do several trials of this, not just once a day. You might want to even do several trials in a row. As you continue the trials, back a little farther behind each time and maybe try to not be so exaggerated when you say their name. This will help them respond when you say their name. 

We want the child to look up. We don’t want to have them have to turn their whole body, but the more we pair their name with positive reinforcement, the more the child will attend to their name. For the professionals out there, come up with a data sheet, do 10 trials of name-calling a day. And with reinforcement, gradually fade out the distance that you’re calling, the volume that you’re calling, and then start intermittently reinforcing the name call. Maybe they only get an edible every three times the name is called or every two times. 

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