Deciding How to Discipline Your Autistic Child
Deciding how to discipline an autistic child is no small task. The autism spectrum involves challenging behaviors like anger, aggression, extreme mood swings, and intense meltdowns. Because of their unique needs, children with autism must be disciplined a bit differently than children not on the autism spectrum. Therefore, it’s important to know how to discipline a child with autism.
There are multiple discipline approaches for kids with autism, not all of them equally sound. Some discipline methods that parents use include:
- No discipline
- Punishments, including physical punishments
- Use of rules and negative consequences
- Positive reinforcement
Before going further, we can knock a couple of these discipline methods out of the way. Punishments, especially physical ones, are never recommended for any child. They are harsh, confusing, and they don’t teach children positive ways to behave. Punishments are ineffective and hurtful.
Opposite of punishment is providing no discipline at all. Despite myths to the contrary, autistic children can understand discipline. They need to learn proper behavior just as their peers do, and they learn through methods that meet their needs.
While children with autism can and should be disciplined, it’s imperative to separate behavior that is an inherent part of their autism from intentional actions. Kids should never be disciplined for things like making noises, repeating phrases or words, rocking, and more. These are behaviors that can’t be extinguished, and trying to discipline them away will be upsetting, confusing, frustrating, and hurtful to your autistic child and even to you.
Learning how to discipline an autistic child involves knowing not only the types of discipline choices but which ones to use for your own child.
Deciding How to Discipline Your Autistic Child: Go Deeper than the Behavior
These four key elements are essential in learning how to discipline a child on the autism spectrum (Wallace, 2018):
First, identify your child’s behavior, and describe it in detail. What, specifically, is your child doing that is undesirable? Knowing exactly what’s going on will help you respond the way your child needs you to.
Then, expand your description to the circumstances around it. What time of day is it? Is your child having a meltdown or acting aggressively because they’re hungry? Tired? Stressed? Transitioning from afternoon to evening? What else is going on? What is the setting? Are there other people involved? Identifying what happens before your child misbehaves will help you take the next step.
Armed with objective facts, you can begin to understand what underlies the misbehavior. Go deeper and uncover the purpose of the behavior. Often in autism, misbehavior is an attempt at communication. Your child might be trying to tell you something but doesn’t have the words. This can frustrate them and make them feel unheard. Another possibility is that your child is reacting to physical sensations or sensory overstimulation. Tending to these will allow the misbehavior to wane.
Once you identify and understand triggers that are contributing to the behavior, you can operate from a perspective of empathy and respond constructively to what your child is doing. The calm management of behaviors is the next step in how to discipline an autistic child.
Managing the Misbehavior of Autistic Children
Knowing how to discipline a child with mild autism as well as more serious autism is understanding how to manage their misbehavior. One approach is to make rules and have consequences for breaking them. For this approach to work, parents need to follow certain guidelines:
- Rules must be extremely clear with no room for interpretation. Children with autism are literal, black-and-white thinkers. Stating, “Don’t jump on the couch,” means that they can jump on anything else.
- Consequences also must be clear and used consistently, every time a rule is broken.
Positive reinforcement is a highly recommended form of discipline for children on the autism spectrum This type of discipline teaches children to understand what behaviors are desirable and encourages them to do more of it.
Build on positive behaviors kids already use. When you catch them being good, reinforce the behavior with praise. Token boards add a visual, concrete element to positive reinforcement. The board sports a picture of a reward the child wants to earn and has pouches for kids to place little tokens you give them for positive behavior. When they’ve earned enough tokens, they receive the reward.
Prevent Negative Behaviors in Children with Autism
Discipline wouldn’t be complete if it stopped with consequences or positive reinforcement. Teaching kids with autism ultimately involves preventing misbehavior from happening in the first place (or at least greatly minimizing it).
Return to your identification and understanding of the misbehavior. Use your observations to make some changes. Creating an environment that is calming, consistent, predictable, responsive, and rewarding is how to discipline an autistic child.
Peterson, T. (2019, July 24). Deciding How to Discipline Your Autistic Child, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, May 6 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/discipline/deciding-how-to-discipline-your-autistic-child