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How to Discipline Your Autistic Child

Tips for Parents of Kids with ASD

When a child misbehaves, whether it’s throwing objects, having a tantrum, hurting someone or themselves, they should get some form of punishment. All children need to be disciplined, especially in dangerous situations, such as running into the road. Parents often wonder how to discipline their autistic children. How do you punish an autistic child who may not understand what is happening to them?  What about physical punishment, does that work?  Here’s what parents need to consider when disciplining their autistic child.

The point of discipline is helping your child learn how to behave appropriately in different situations. It is about helping your child understand how to behave and how not to behave. Discipline strategies need to be positive, not negative. Talking and listening play a significant role in discipline training, which is difficult for some children.

Discipline helps children:

  • understand what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate,
  • develop skills to get along well with others,
  • learn to understand, manage, and express their feelings.
  • Discipline works best when you have a loving relationship with your child.

Did You Know?

Children with autism often have language and cognitive delays. This makes them incapable of understanding simple rules, such as, we keep our hands to ourselves, or we need to be quiet now. All children should be taught based on their abilities, strengths, and needs, not their chronological age. Punishing a child for not following rules that he doesn’t understand is just inappropriate.

Many parents of children with and without disabilities don’t know how to discipline without threats and punishment. The methods, such as time out or yelling, often backfire, and the children become more disruptive over time, not less. The infamous “time out” is one of the most overused discipline techniques, and it’s a procedure misused frequently.  If “time out” is used for a child, it should work quickly to decrease behavior. “Time out” should be used on rare occasions only after careful parental assessment. Time out should not be used daily or even weekly. If you are using it frequently, you are being too over-reactive and not preventing things from happening in the first place.

Autism and Discipline

Physical discipline should not be used on an autistic child. Here is why.  Physical punishment does not teach your child why the behavior must stop. For example, your child runs into the road. The parent says, “Don’t do that.” Unfortunately, your child may not understand what you said or why you said it. If you say, we don’t walk in the road because you might get run over by a car, you convey the reason behind the statement. Of course, your child may not fully understand, but you are directing him towards why we don’t do that behavior. An autistic child needs a different approach to discipline, not the traditional methods.

Safety First

Protecting your child is a tremendous job; always put safety first. Consider the situation and how your child responds.  As the parent, you are responsible for your child’s actions and your own. Where necessary, remove your child from the situation – mainly if it is unsafe emotionally or physically. However, be aware of how your child responds to the problem. If he calms down immediately, he may be learning that he can avoid an unpleasant situation by acting out.

A negative effect of using physical discipline is that you teach your child that it is ok to hit other people or himself.  Autistic children don’t understand the difference.  Parents show frustration in many ways, and one common practice is to use physical punishment. In the heat of the moment, parents may strike out when they usually would not. It is human nature, but keeping a cool head is critical for your child. As parents, we need to consider our actions – even if that is easier said than done.

If we do lash out, we are teaching the child that it is acceptable to hit someone or themselves. This raises the question of self-harm.  If your child is leaving bruises or causing himself bleed, it is crucial to address this with your physician or psychologist. Even if there is no serious harm done, it is still important to talk with a professional who may provide sound advice to change the behavior. 

All behavior has underlying reasons, and a common reason for autistic children is difficulty with communication. That is why the emphasis is placed on “learning your child’s language.” How do you do this? By observing their non-verbal, verbal actions and behaviors. Learning this does take time, but remember you are the expert on your child.

Other reasons for self-harm may include:

  • Painful medical issues such as a headache or toothache causing hitting to disguise the pain,
  • Acting out to avoid a distressing situation,
  • Trying to gain the attention of someone,
  • Getting an object, they want and,
  • Imitating physical behavior, he was taught.

Once the parent understands the reasons for the behavior, they can work on solutions and replacement behaviors. An example might be that your child is trying to “escape” from a situation, so he has a tantrum. Teach him another way or sign to show he needs to have a break instead of throwing a tantrum.  Remain focused on the positive, not the negative behaviors.

The Key: Positive Discipline

Children with autism respond better to positive reinforcement, and they learn quicker. If your child is hitting, use praise, giving him a high-five, or some other positive reinforcement when he “keeps is his hands to himself.” A useful idea is to keep a token board. On this board is a picture of the item your child is working towards, which helps to keep him motivated.  Visual supports are useful and convey what you expect from him. The Autism Speaks ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports, and Autism Took Kit is a helpful resource. Another resource is Autism Speaks Challenging Behaviors Tool Kit(autismspeaks.org).

The Secret Sauce: Being Consistent

As a parent, being consistent is vital for raising all children. This is especially true for special needs kids.  Setting routines will help you be consistent. Routines for daily activities and discipline will bring a sense of order to your life. Teach your child about “reasons” and consequences for behavior. For children who have difficulty learning, positive reinforcement is essential.  Play down the negative actions and emphasize the positive ones. Yes, it may be a long road getting to that point, but your child will do much better, and you will be less stressed.

Remember, discipline can be difficult for any parent. There will be good days and bad days and lots of days in between. Behavior is a challenge for all parents, so don’t give up!

Written by PJ Larsen, Ed. D., Veteran classroom teacher, college professor, and adventure traveler.

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