My Child Won’t Answer Questions!

“Jeff, what did you do at school today?”
“Did Mrs. Miller give you any homework?”
“Where’s your lunchbox?”
“Did you talk nicely in speech therapy?”

Does any of the above sound familiar? To us, it sounds like the typical series of questions parents ask their children at the end of most every school day.

How does your child respond to these questions? Children with fragile X syndrome will most likely not respond to them directly, but may instead respond with one of the following:

  • Avoid all eye contact and walk away
  • Start talking about their favorite cooking show on TV
  • Answer the last question asked with a simple yes or no
  • Repeat the most relevant word in the last question, “Speech? Speech therapy, not today…not going!”

Parents usually ask their children questions to get information or to simply engage them in conversation. In the case of a child with FXS, asking direct questions is the least likely way to accomplish either of these goals.

Interestingly, it’s not that different at the Developmental FX, where the end of the day often sounds like this: “Mouse, where are you going? Are you leaving early? Are you going to work on your garden? Can you get me that report before you leave?”

It turns out that direct questions don’t work well with Mouse either!

Direct questions are typically the way we try to engage people in conversation. For children with FXS, we need to learn other strategies. It is critical to understand why it is so difficult for children with FXS to understand and respond to these questions, before we get to the “how” of getting answers.

It has been well documented that individuals with FXS often experience a hyperarousal response to direct social interaction. (“Hyperarousal” is the clinical term for “get all flustered and probably red in the face.”)

In addition, their difficulties with working memory make it difficult for them to hold the questions in mind long enough to consider them, formulate a response, and act on that response. Combine these two conditions and you have the perfect scenario for not answering a direct question!

So then, how do we find out where Mouse is going at the end of the day, or if Mrs. Miller gave your child any homework?

These tried-and-true strategies provide the “how” for getting information and fostering simple conversation.

  1. Use a fill-in-the-blank (cloze) format. As you verbalize the following short phrase, your voice should be leading and expectant: “Your lunchbox is…”
  2. Make statements … not questions. Talk about what your child is doing or has just done. Be the narrator for your child’s life events. For example, when driving home from school together, you could remark “You brought home some papers today,” or “You have a smile on your face, what a great day you must have had,” or “I can’t wait to hear about your trip to the zoo!”
  3. Use self-commenting about your day as a model for your child to follow: “I’m so excited about my day! I saw some puppies at the park, and I ate my lunch with a friend.”
  4. Soften your gaze when attempting an interaction in order to minimize hyperarousal.
  5. Use a physical prop or visual aid to support the context of your comments. For example, hold up the visual schedule of the day and make a comment while pointing to a particular picture on the schedule. While emptying your child’s backpack, hold up a specific item (Tupperware container) and remark, “Oh, your sandwich must’ve been deeelishhh today!”
  6. Movement activities will help facilitate language expression. If you want to have a conversation, try it while going for a walk, jumping on the trampoline or while swinging at the park. This is one of the reasons we often pair occupational and speech therapy, because movement promotes talking!
  7. Remember: Do not try to have a conversation or get information during a transition. This is the hardest time to establish a flow of language. Rather, use routines to ease the transition, then after you are settled in, use one or a combination of the strategies listed to spark conversation.

Have these suggestions been helpful? How will you use them? Will you share them with your school? Will they work with Mouse?

Oops! Too many direct questions. Instead, we’ll make a comment.

These great suggestions could be used in a variety of situations. We hope they are helpful and that you’ll share them with…!

Sarah 'Mouse' Scharfenaker, MA, CCC-SLPSarah “Mouse” Scharfenaker, MA, CCC-SLP
fondly known as “Mouse”, is vice-president, CFO and co-founder of Developmental FX. She has worked in the fields of fragile X syndrome and neurodevelopmental disorders for more than 25 years. She received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Montana, Missoula.
Tracy Stackhouse, MA, OTRTracy Stackhouse, MA, OTR
a Colorado native, is president and co-founder of Developmental FX. She is a leading pediatric occupational therapist (OT) involved in clinical treatment, research, mentoring, and training regarding OT intervention for persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, especially fragile X syndrome and autism.
Developmental FX


  • Thanx ur article was helpful. I am a mother of two lovely boys aged 15 & 7. The both never respond to questions directly. My younger one is very creative and uses different characters to answer questions or will just give an answer that doesn’t suffice.
    I am worried about this . Both my boys stutter . Stuttering has come from my side of the family. I stutter as well.
    Please help.

  • Hi,

    My niece is 3.5 years old. She is a very active kid. She has very good hand eye coordination. Very creative. She is all over the house pulling things down. Very very curious. She loves her cousins and granny. However, when it comes to speaking she is way behind other kids of her age. For a simple question with a Yes/No answer, she would repeat the question instead of answering. For basic questions she is able to shake her head to express yes/No. She speaks out quickly (not so fluently) when she is emotional (when her baby brother cry for example). Even now she does not relate Yes and No to what she wants. Not sure what to do. Please advice.

    Thanks and Regards,

  • Hello,

    My son is 4 years old going to 5, he’s a wonderful little boy he has good manners and read fine. However, he has difficulty to answer questions or have a conversation. For example, I asked him what we did today? His answer about the moon or toys, but when I refresh his mind he’ll start saying what we did but little. He’s different from others kids I know I need to do something please help.

  • Hello –
    My son just turned 4 and I have a hard time having conversations with him. I think I’m expecting too much from him at this age about in depth conversations about his day, but when I ask what he did at school, all I get back is “I don’t know”. I give him a little while to settle down from picking him up and sometimes he will elaborate further and answer me, but sometimes not. It’s like he doesn’t remember. But you can ask him what he ate for lunch and he will ask real quick.

    • Sorry, he will answer real quick. He doesn’t like to answer questions, and will start talking about subjects he’s interested in. I get so frustrated and automatically think the worst. He’s a normal little boy, but my mind goes to the worst case scenario

      • Hi Jamie, You might ask the teachers if they will do a back/forth book. They can write what he did at school so you can talk with him about it. And they can do the same when they see what he does at home. Let me know if you want to discuss more ideas. Jayne

  • hi

    I read your article. my 3 yrs and 2 months old son is having speech delay. he is attending speech therapy. his speech is getting improved but like you said in your article he doesn’t know to answer questions (what you did in school?/what did you have for lunch?/what happened….). If i follow the above method will he able to talk about the situation?
    Also like to know when they grow,children with these difficulties will they change into normal or suffer the same?

  • Hi Jayne,

    Thanks for the article.

    My son will turn 3 in 2 weeks, he has speech delay but he is catching up slowly, currently he is not receiving any therapy but we are working on talking more to him.

    he goes to day care all 5 days a week (if that is a reason), he has hard time answering questions.

    few questions like
    1. call daddy? where is daddy?
    2. do you need snack?
    3. do you need to go to potty?

    these kind of questions he has no problem answering as they are all in present. but he doesn’t answer any questions that are related to past, like.

    1. What did you do in school?
    2. did you go to play ground?
    3. What did you eat for lunch?
    4. Did daddy give you a Kiss?

    How should I handle these? he doesn’t listen to anything that doesn’t interest him.

  • Raji, Try this – get the answers to these types of questions from the day care and then talk to your son about them, rather than asking questions. Start a back/forth notebook with the daycare so you know what is going on and you can help your son talk about his day. I would also work to get therapy. They will have ideas abou this too.
    Email me with questions.

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