I’ve been teaching children with ASD for many years. Often my attempts to teach WH questions are unsuccessful. While children learn some rote responses, once I attempt to generalize to new situations, children seem to confuse questions. For example, if I ask a child, “Where did you eat?” the child might say, “Pizza.” Do you have any idea why the child gets confused, and do you have any suggestions to address this?

Answered by Alan Schnee, PhD, BCBA-D
Nexus Autism Intervention Services, Cherry Hill, NJ

This is an excellent question. Children with autism often confuse WH questions. They often respond to a given WH question as though a different question were asked. For example, a child may answer a, “what” question when a, “where” question is asked. It is sometimes suggested that children confuse WH questions because of an auditory “discrimination problem,” which is to say that children don’t differentiate the words. However, it’s been our experience that children who can match words in verbal imitation still confuse WH questions. So, what else can it be? It is important to consider that children simply don’t know what these terms mean. To say that someone knows the meaning of a word is based on behavioral criteria and what a word means is determined by convention. To say that someone doesn’t know what a word means is to say they do not use and respond to it according to the rules for its use (Hacker 2013, p. 115).

So, what does this mean for us? It means we need to consider what it would take for children to learn how to use and respond to given words. This means that children need to learn what a word is used for. It means that we need to consider how to engineer intervention so that children learn compatible words to which target words are linked. It means that we need to contrive circumstances, situations and transactions in which progressive mastery is achieved within a normative structure and ultimately, it means that much more goes into teaching children to answer WH questions than relying exclusively on rote responses to long lists of arbitrary WH questions.

Considerations for preparing children to answer, “where” questions:

When we ask a, “where” question, our uncertainty concerns locations and destinations. Thus, to ask, “where” is to ask, “At which place or from which place.” To such questions we expect answers that reference some place in conjunction with a preposition (e.g., from the kitchen, on the table). Therefore, in order to be able to answer rudimentary, “where” questions, children need to learn the names of things (couch, table, rooms, stores, etc.) and prepositions (close, to, at, near, from, under, on, beside, etc.) used in relation to a place, as well as non-specific spatial referents (here, there) – which requires that children are able to follow/use a point, eye gaze, or other gestures.

When we begin teaching children to answer, “where” questions, it is common to start with basic ‘table-top’ spatial relations. For example, when we arrange on a table, a red block on a cup and a green block next to a cup we might ask, “Where is the red block?” (Frazier, 2018; Leaf & McEachin,1999; Lund & Schnee, 2018; Taylor & McDonough, 1996). Once these rudimentary relations are in place, children will need to go places and report on where they went, came from, and where they are going (declaring destinations). They will need to be stationed in places (self-positioned) and report where they are so to be able to learn and link destinations and locations using “at,” “to,” ”from,” “in,” etc.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that uses of, “where’’ extend beyond spatial relations. Thus, to ask, “Where are you?” can in one sense be used to ask for an opinion, or in another to ask about progress within a process (e.g., “I’m in the middle.” “I’m at the beginning.”) or to ask about a state of attention (e.g., “Sorry, I was in ‘In La-La Land”). These examples also illustrate that responses to, “where” questions may rely on metaphoric or idiomatic uses of prepositional terms, as when we say we are standing, “on line,” even though we are not standing on anything.

It should also be pointed out, when answering, “where” questions, pragmatic considerations come into play (Lund, 2015). So, when asked, “Where are my keys?” answering factually that, “They are in New Jersey” may not be particularly helpful if both the person asking and the person answering are in the same kitchen in New Jersey. However, if the same question were asked in Chicago, that same answer would be suitable. Similarly, history needs to be taken into account. Thus, if I’m in Chicago, and my wife is in our kitchen in New Jersey and she asks where the keys are and I say “In the can.” then our shared history makes my response both understandable and useful. However, the same answer would not be suitable to a new guest staying in our house who asks the same question. Given these considerations, hopefully this section illustrates some different ways the word, “where” is used, what it would take for children to respond appropriately to, “where” questions and how learning to memorize responses from item lists cannot prepare children for such a task.

Considerations for preparing children to answer, “why” questions:

When teaching children to answer, “why” questions, there is also a tendency to teach children rote responses from item lists. This section should clarify why doing so will not advance children’s abilities in this area. In language, to ask a, “why” question is to say, “Give me a reason.” In the, “why” language game, any number of reasons could be offered to a question. For example, to the question, “Why did you wash your hands?” there is an indeterminate number of appropriate answers:

  • “Mommy told me to.”
  • “My M&M melted in my hand.”
  • “We always wash before prayer.”
  • “I hate when my hands are dirty.”

The possible reasons follow from an unpredictable number of factors and situations. One may state their reason/s for why they did or didn’t do something, say or didn’t say something, felt one way or another, believed, desired, needed or hoped for something, etc. based on whim, preference, need, demands, fear, shame, misinformation, new information, etc.

Before we begin to teach children to answer or use, “why,” it is important that other abilities are in place. Children need to learn to do things, make things, go places, give and get things, look for things, etc. The use of, “why” and responding to, “why” questions often hangs on circumstances which often fall out of activity. Once children are doing things, they should be able to (at a minimum) report on what they are doing, using, or where they are going. We find it especially helpful, before we introduce, “why” questions, that children learn to use tools (for making art, eating, building things, cleaning or cooking, etc.) and to ask for things they need.

One early strategy we employ for introducing, “why” questions is ‘piggybacking’ off of interrupted chains; sabotaging an activity so that it can’t be completed without the child seeking assistance in some way. For example, once a child can make things using tools (e.g., in order to make a face, a child can use tape or some other tool to attach googly eyes to the paper), we make sure the tool is unavailable. This assumes the child has learned to ask for things she needs in order to complete a task. Thus, when a needed tool is unavailable (by design) and when the child asks for it, we can ask the child, “Why do you need it?” to which we prompt the child to say something like, “I need it to attach the eyes to the paper.” Working like this has the added benefit of providing a platform for introducing or strengthening concepts such as, in this case, “attach.” Additionally, arranging things in this way is important for teaching ‘functions’ since in such scenarios, children are actually learning to use the tools they need, to ask for them when it’s appropriate and to explain why they need them, all in real time. We do this as opposed to teaching children to answer rote questions out of context. Working this way addresses several dimensions of skill acquisition simultaneously and illustrates considerations related to careful planning for the construction of ‘advanced’ abilities.

Considerations for preparing children to answer, “when” questions:

The concept, “when” denotes time. To ask a, “when” question is to ask, “At which time?” Answers to when questions take the form, “When x,” such as to the question, “When are you coming for dinner?” to which the answer has the form, “When I finish work.” The answers also take a form combined with prepositions so the answers could look like, “At 5:00,” “On Tuesday,” or, “In a minute.” Thus, the word, “when” is bound up with prepositions (before, after, on, in, at, next, etc.) in relation to standard time markers such as calendar events (days, weeks, months, years, holidays, seasons), or clocked times (minutes, hours, seconds). “When” is also linked to commonly used, non-specific time related concepts, “soon,” “later,” and, “now.”

We need to be mindful of the fact that prepositional terms (before, after, on, in, at, next, etc.) used to mark time are also used to refer to spatial relations. Teaching children to use them when learning to answer one WH question (e.g., when) will not likely translate or ‘generalize’ to use in others (e.g., where). For example, saying, “In a minute.” and, “In the cup.” each require different teaching arrangements if children are to learn their varied applications.

Finally, it is important to point out that the concept, “when” is bound up with rule following. While ‘when rules’ may be based on standard time markers, it is probably more common in everyday linguistic practice that they do not. Rather, rules for some future event are often linked to arbitrary, idiosyncratic events such as, “You start running when the gun sounds.” or, “You can watch your video when Mommy comes home.” Hopefully, pointing out these considerations illustrates that more needs to be considered than teaching children only rote responses if they are to be able to answer, “when” questions.

Considerations for preparing children to answer, “who” questions:

The concept, “who” is a pronoun that is used to stand in for persons or personified objects such as dolls or play animals. When a “who” question is asked, we are asking, “Which person?” Thus, “who” is linked to persons’ names, personal pronouns (I, you, my, your, me, my, mine, we, they, us, his, her, etc.) and to things personified.

We often introduce the concept, “who” by asking children to identify persons in pictures (e.g., “Who is it?”). Once this basic ability is in place, we will combine, “who” questions with other concepts:

  • Actions (Who is acting?)
  • Prepositions (Who is under, on, in etc.?)
  • Possession (Who has ‘x’ ?)
  • Gender (Who is that boy?)
  • Role (Who is that teacher?)
  • Attribute (Who is that tall person?)

The difficulty in responding to, “who” questions increases significantly as the requirement to answer them involves using other subject pronouns (e.g., I, you, he, she, we, they) or objective pronouns (e.g., me, him, her, us, them).

Considerations for preparing children to answer, “what” questions:

When we ask, “what,” we expect answers that point to things, actions, events/experiences. Early in intervention, children learn to answer, “what” questions related to colors, shapes, functions, actions, size, naming objects, etc. (Frazier, 2018, Leaf & McEachin,1999: Lund & Schnee, 2018; Taylor & McDonough,1996). Learning to respond to, “what” questions as addressed in introductory manuals also includes learning to answer rudimentary ‘what-action’ questions such as, “What are you doing?” or “What did you do?” This offers a good start, but more than naming current or past actions is required when considering ‘what-action’ questions. For example, when teaching progressive actions, children’s answers are based on the intended outcome (Lund & Schnee, 2018). So, if children are building a tower with colored blocks, the response to the question, “What are you doing?” is not, “Putting the red square on top of the green cylinder.” but “Building a tower.” Therefore, teaching children to state their intentions related to future activities also needs to be considered.

There will be times when it is important to teach children to memorize responses to factually based WH questions, as long as there are good reasons for doing so. Very often, memorized responses will be needed for the construction of other abilities. For example, being able to answer questions like, “What color is an apple?” and “What are the parts of a car?” will later be needed for teaching children to make comparisons (similarities and differences). Beyond this, children will need to learn to answer non-factual, “what” questions for which memorized answers are not possible. Such questions include queries about emotional, sensory or perceptual experiences, as well as questions involving psychological predicates, “thinking,” “believing,” “wishing,” etc.

Solidifying rules for answering WH questions:

Once basic abilities are in place concerning WH terms, a next step is vital and requires that we systematically intersperse WH terms. When doing so, children will have to pay close attention, as there are more moving parts, more possible moves since several ‘games’ are rotated in and out of play, in quick succession. Interspersing terms should help solidify the rules for responding to these terms (when/time, where/place, what/ things-actions, who/persons, why/reasons), at least at a rudimentary level. Below is a example, modified from Lund and Schnee, (2018, p.107) which intersperses, “who” in the context of, “where” and, “what.”

In this exercise, two-to-three (or more) persons are situated around a room or are seated in a circle. Familiar objects are placed around the room and questions are randomized. For example:

(a) “What is over there?”

(b) “Where is the [object]?”

(c) “Where is [person]?” followed by, “What does (person) have?”

(d) “Who has the [object]?” followed by, “Where is she?”

(e) Add the question: “Where is the [object]?” when someone is holding the object. The child should answer, “[person] has [it]” rather than, “over there.” Randomize questions about objects in someone’s possession (“[person] has it”) and not in someone’s possession (“over there”).

Introducing use of WH terms:

When children learn to appropriately use and respond to WH terms, we can say with greater confidence that children possess the concepts, “where,” “why,” “when,” “who” and “what”. Introductory exercises for learning to ask some WH questions can be found in Leaf and McEachin,1999; Lund and Schnee, 2018; Taylor and McDonough,1996. To enhance learning beyond what is found in introductory manuals, we take advantage of ‘everyday occurrences’ and manipulate their frequencies in order to increase practice opportunities. For example, we can, as we begin to leave a room, grab our coats or briefcases and make statements that invite a question by saying something like, “See ya later.” or, “I’m going out.” Such statements pull for the question, “Where are you going?” An example of how we begin to get asking, “when” off the ground, might involve telling a child that they will have access to an activity in the near future by saying something like, “We’re going to the park later.” Such statements naturally pull for a, ‘when’ question. A variety of strategies can be then employed to help children situate the upcoming event in relation to a current activity. If we simply pay attention to situations that call for the use of these terms and find ways to systematically arrange for their occurrences at greater frequencies, children will have corresponding opportunities to learn to ask appropriate questions given those situations. In these ways, we can do much to help children learn to use these terms appropriately and to strengthen their overall abilities concerning them.

A final note:

I hope I was able to shed light on some of what is involved in preparing children to be able to answer WH questions. I further hope that I was able to illustrate why it is important to move beyond the practice of only teaching children to memorize responses to WH questions and why doing so may help children learn to answer them masterfully. While there are times it is useful to teach children to memorize responses (for constructional considerations), the general practice of teaching children to memorize responses does not inform what we, as teachers, need to consider as we begin to support children in developing abilities related to answering or asking WH questions. Teaching children to memorize responses to different WH questions ignores considerations involving compatibilities and combinatorial possibilities between terms and the complicated engineering required to link them in use. It ignores the different uses of some of the terms. It ignores the need to ensure that prerequisite abilities are reliably demonstrated and ready for uploading into the many possible situations, circumstances or transactions in which they may be put to use. Ultimately, it ignores the considerations that will prepare children to participate in the practices, activities, actions and reactions in characteristic contexts in which the rule-governed use of these words is integrated (Hacker, 1999). There is much to consider (not all of which could possibly be accounted for here) as intervention is developed toward progressive mastery of these terms within a normative structure.


Frazier, T. J. (2018). ABBLLS-R skill acquisition program manual set. DRL Books.

Hacker, P. M. S. (1999). Wittgenstein (the great philosophers series). Rutledge.

Leaf, R. B., & McEachin, J. (1999). A work in progress: Behavior management strategies and curriculum for intensive behavioral treatment of autism. DRL Books.

Lund, S. K. (2015). Untitled. Unpublished manuscript.

Lund, S. K., & Schnee, A. (2018). Early intervention for children with ASD: Considerations. Infinity.

Taylor B. A., & McDonough, K. A. (1996). Selecting teaching programs. In C. Maurice, G. Green, & S. C. Luce (Eds.), Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals. (pp. 63–177). Pro Ed.

Citation for this article:

Schnee, A. (2020). Clinical corner: What goes into teaching WH questions?, Science in Autism Treatment, 17(5).

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