Just like all other children, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder need to mature and learn discipline in order to function appropriately in social situations. There are, however, additional challenges disciplining children with Autism because of the sensory perception issues they deal with. Punishment for a child with Autism may seem like you mean them harm if you are not careful to explain what is happening. Sometimes behavioral issues in children with Autism manifest as symptoms, but they also have similar impulses as other boys and girls, which can get them into trouble too. Whether it is a behavioral issue or something your child does not realize they are doing, the behavior can be corrected.
Differentiating Discipline Strategies
Every behavioral problem will be different depending on what symptoms the child experiences, and if the behavior is being caused by symptoms of Autism, it’s likely that the child will not understand why they are being corrected. Because of this reason, traditional punishment can do more harm than anything. Especially when the child does not expect to be reprimanded, it can overload their senses and make them feel attacked. Disciplining children with Autism needs to be done carefully with clear explanations, so the situation doesn’t trigger a bad reaction.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5, recognizes a range of symptoms and behaviors a person with Autism might struggle with. To avoid overthinking about every little behavior, we recommend using these resources on a case-to-case basis. All children have different abilities, so it can be hard to predict “where” someone is on the Autism Spectrum. Instead of matching every symptom you can, parents and loved ones should make note of individual behaviors they see in their child and follow up with research. Resources like the DSM-5 offer a great foundation for parents struggling to appropriately discipline their Autistic child.
Potential problem behaviors
- Physical tantrums
- Self Injury
- Social issues
- Not sitting still
- Seemingly “rude” to people
- Not following instructions
Behavioral Interventions for Children with Autism
The first step to disciplining a child with Autism is explaining the intervention. Talk about what they did wrong and why it cannot be done. You can also explain social norms to help clarify something, but the process for disciplining Autistic children varies too much after explaining the reason for it. Each behavioral issue and best method for responding to the issue differ based on the child’s diagnosis and symptoms. Just like treatment, discipline should be individualized based on the child’s needs.
Common behavioral challenges for children with Autism include the following behaviors. Browse the list and think about which one could be the best starting point.
- Obsessing: One of the challenges for children with Autism is resisting obsessive or repetitive behaviors and routines. Routines are healthy, but if your child obsesses over one part of the day and resists moving on to something different, it is time to intervene. Your child cannot focus on one aspect of his or her life forever, so setting time limits for things and monitoring something’s use in a behavior chart can be helpful for staying out front of this issue.
- Physical tantrum: When a child with Autism has a sensory overload, they might not know how to react which causes a tantrum. While throwing a tantrum is not acceptable, you need to work with your child to help them control it. Setting them aside with a timeout or giving them time with a stress-relief tool might be the best strategy to get your child calm enough so they can talk about and understand the situation.
- Hitting: Similar to a tantrum, if the child’s tantrum turns violent against someone else, they should be separated immediately. This is another situation where the child needs to cool down before they can talk about and resolve the situation.
- Self-Injury: Sometimes a tantrum is violent for the person experiencing it. If your child gets overwhelmed and starts harming themselves, they need time to be isolated and calm down, but you should be watchful to make sure they do not get worked up again and do real damage to themselves. Quiet time could help, but self-injury is a clear sign your child needs support and attention. These issues need individualized care and treatment.
- Social issues: Social miscues are also common for Autistic children. They perceive external stimuli differently, so certain social situations might not make sense to them. A child with Autism might not be able to sit still or follow instructions. Miscommunications can also make the child seem “rude” when in reality they just need help figuring out societal norms. Social problems need to be corrected delicately, especially when in public so the child can learn appropriate behavior without disrupting their surroundings.
Check out these this article from Applied Behavioral Analysis Edu that walks you through how to identify triggers and different behavioral issues. Each step can be customized to fit different treatments, as well.
Establishing a Personal Code of Conduct in the Home
Some key strategies for disciplining a child with Autism is being proactive. In classrooms, teachers establish a set of rules that are featured somewhere in the class. This establishes consistency and leaves a constant reminder of the classroom rules. You need the same type of consistency when disciplining children at home so boundaries are not disputed. Having set rules already established makes explaining why something is wrong that much simpler.
- Time out
- Losing toys or privileges
It’s important to not take away activities that soothe and to make sure the child understands why they are being disciplined.
Negative Reinforcement Strategies
Consequences for bad behavior, need consistency but also require caution to not exasperate a problem. Time outs are common disciplinary tactics for all children, but they can be ideal to discipline children with Autism because they give their senses and minds a minute to refocus and stay calm enough to correct the action. Whenever a child experiences a tantrum or violent fit, a time out can help them cool down. It is also important to note that devices and activities, like using a fidget spinner, may help relieve tension. These devices can prevent tantrums and soothe negative energy, so it would be counterproductive to take them away as punishment.
Toys, games, devices and other privileges your child enjoys are fair game to be used for punishment. These items are not essential, but they should be important enough for the child to show them negative actions bring negative consequences. Again, using this form of punishment needs to be thoroughly explained. Your child should know the consequence is not permanent and it reflects specific bad behavior.
Positive Reinforcement Strategies
Like when you correct bad behavior, you should be just as vigilant to offer praise and positive reinforcement when your child exhibits good behavior. This becomes especially important to reinforce when they begin learning to act appropriately on their own. For keeping track of good behavior, parents might also want to implement a behavioral chart for each day. It gives you and your child a record of their behavior and helps them visualize their progress. Imagine setting goals and not being able to track how far you’ve come.
Good progress encourages children and makes the goal setting process more flexible. The ability to adapt behavioral goals based on the progress already made means the goal-setter can always re-shape goals and make them more attainable. Some kids might be causing more serious behavioral concerns because of a lack of progress. Sometimes slowing down to make a small jump gives you the momentum to keep rising.
Tailor the Discipline to Your Child
No case of Autism Spectrum Disorder manifests the same way, so neither will behavioral challenges and resolutions. The best thing to do is to be open with your child about discipline and see which types of interventions work best. There has to be a lot of trial and error because of all the diverse cases of ASD, but different combinations of the strategies listed could be right for your child.
Documenting behavior and guidelines preserves a record for your child and can make explaining things easier. No matter what strategies are used to correct behavioral issues, it is vital that parents practice open communication and help their children understand why things are wrong and not just which things are wrong.If you would like to discuss your child's behavior with a professional,