We Know Best? A BCBA’s Perspective on Respecting Children’s Autonomy

Parents know best! Parents undoubtedly have an innate, profound connection with their children that allows them to always care for them and forever, carrying their best interests at heart. No matter how old your offspring may be, they will always be your child, and you know what’s best for them. Us clinicians, too, know best! We spend most of our adult lives learning how to scientifically use evidence-based strategies and techniques to help humanity. We work very hard to know what’s best! All that being said, and while I believe it to my core, it is important to recognize that knowing what is best for our children may not be the sole factor to consider when making decisions that involve them.

As a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), working with children on the autism spectrum and their families to help them achieve their goals and improve their quality of life, I’ve come to value the importance of respecting children’s autonomy. In this article, I will share insights into empowering children, understanding their preferences, and fostering their independence.

Respecting the autonomy of the individuals we serve is a fundamental value within our profession as BCBA practitioners. We firmly believe that recognizing, acknowledging, and honoring their right to make choices regarding their own lives contributes to their well-being and development and fosters their independence and self-determination from an early age. Empowering individuals on the spectrum with autonomy extends beyond simply offering choices to ensure that we obtain their acceptability to take part in any intervention or activity. Obtaining our clients’ acceptability of intervention can be done verbally (with them indicating through any communication modality that they want to join the current activity) or non-verbally by closely observing their behavior and interaction with an activity to gain valuable insights into their preferences and desires. For example, a child may show non-verbal acceptance by smiling, nodding, or showing enthusiasm towards an activity. On the other hand, reluctance or avoidance might indicate their disinterest in participating. As clinicians and parents, we should be mindful of these cues and use them to inform our decision-making process.
Our goal as clinicians is to design work activities and interventions that create an individualized rewarding environment. By taking their preferences into account, we promote their independence and self-determination. This will facilitate the learning and behavior change we are aiming for while the child is willing to participate. For example, if a child is motivated by cars, incorporating car-based activities into their learning can enhance their engagement, motivation, and willingness to participate.

Parents of individuals on the autism spectrum also play a crucial role in their children’s autonomy. As parents, it is easy and common to fall into the trap of making decisions for them, thinking that we are doing what is in their best interest, without considering their preferences or desires. However, it is essential to remember that our children have their own unique personalities, preferences, and needs. By considering their input, we can better understand their perspectives and ensure that we are making choices that align with their wishes.

It is also important to note that respecting a child’s autonomy does not mean granting them complete control over every decision. As adults, we have a responsibility to safeguard their safety and well-being. However, balance is key. We can always make the right decision, but we definitely need to start considering how we can present this decision in a way that suits my child and provide choices. By doing so, we promote their independence and self-determination while still maintaining a safe and supportive environment.
We (parents and clinicians) care the most, and we may know best, but we definitely don’t know enough. We care deeply and strive to make the best decisions for our children. However, it’s essential to recognize the value of empowering children, understanding their preferences, and fostering their independence. By restructuring our approach, considering their input, and finding the right balance between autonomy and safety, we create an environment where children can thrive and reach their full potential.


Written by:
Shaza Attia, MA, BCBA, IBA
Early Intervention Supervising BCBA 
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