Disciplining the Autistic Child

Many autistic people, if not all, exhibit challenging behavior, such as anger, aggression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and sterotypical (self-stimulatory) behaviors. Whether and how you intervene with these behaviors, depends on their function. Autistic children exhibit normal childhood misbehavior too. For example, they may nag and tantrum when you won’t give them candy, refuse to tidy their room, or be rude. This behavior can be punished in the same ways that you would use for a same-age typical child, such as by time-out, loss of computer or TV time, etc. Take into account that some consequences may not work for your child. For example, an aloof autistic may find time-out comforting, and most autistics do not get non-verbal cues. Therefore, even with an older child, you need to say explicitly that you are disapproving of their behavior. You also need to make sure the autistic child understands what they are punished for. If they are rude, for example, explain what they said that was rude, how they can make amends, and what they need to do differently the next time. When sending a child to their room, onto the naughty chair, etc., make sure they understand when they can come back. I was often sent to my room and stayed there for hours because I didn’t know when it was okay to come back. Don’t tell a child to come back when they “can behave”. Instead, set a specific time or make concrete rules on what they must do to come back.

As I said, whether and how you intervene with your autistic child’s behavior, depends on its function. Often, a function is presumed based on typical chhild development. For example, suppose your child refuses to tidy their room. You assume they are defiant or lazy, but do they know how to tidy their room? Even if you’ve shown them before or they’ve helped, you cannot expect all autistics to know when or how to do their own tidying or cleaning. I remember when I went to live independently out of an independence training home, my support worker told my knew staff that I knew how to clean. I did, but I had no idea where to start in my new apartment. This may in part be due to blindness, but even as I became familiar with my apartment, I still didn’t know how to organize my cleaning.

Then there are those behaviors that are often due to autism, such as sensory overreactivity, self-stim, or meltdowns. Give yoru child a time and place to engage in self-stim or compulsions, of course with the premise that they won’t damage property or harm themself or others. In 2007, when I was diagnosed with autism, my diagnostician told me that I really needed to unlearn to twirl my hair. Indeed, my parents had told me countless times that I needed to stop this behavior. While it is true that it is annoying and distracting to others, autistics need to be allowed their time to stim. Home is where a child should be safe to be themself. When talking about self-stim and how annoying it is when it’s an autistic doing it, I often refer to a lecture I was going to in college prep. Two students were modeliing appropriate and inappropriate communication skills in their filed. One of them was constantly clicking his pen, and I was assuming at first that this was meant to be inappropriate. It wasn’t. My point is, neurotypical people stim too.

When an autistic person becomes aggressive, be it verbally or physically, you need to intervene. However, it is still important to recognize the function of the aggression. For example, if a child constantly screams or hits when there’s loud noise, screaming at them to stop, will make it worse. Time-out in a quiet place where the child can rage away may be the most appropriate intervention. I strongly disagree with locking up an aggressive person in their time-out area unless there is no other way (except for restraint) to get them to stop. Locking the child up should never be used as a threat or for punitive purposes, and I doubt its effectiveness for verbal aggression. That may be my blindness though, as verbal aggression to me is as scary if it happens in the locked room next door. As for restraint (physically holding the child down), that’s only okay if a person is physically aggressive towards people.

One important point I want to make to finish off: be mindful of your own feelings when handling your autistic child. The moment you start feeling powerlessness or feel you’re going to lose your temper, step back. My parents often lost their temper with me, and this usually only made the situation much worse. I won’t say that you can always feel calm when handling your autistic child’s behavior, but strong emotions can be best handled away from your likely already distressed child.

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24 thoughts on “Disciplining the Autistic Child

  1. It must be so difficult to deal with. I sometimes struggle to discipline my son and just end up getting so frustrated I shout which I know is not the right thing to do. Some great advice here!

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  2. Thanks for sharing, it really is interesting to read from the perspective of an adult with autism as my son is only 4. I do find definitely I need to explain very clearly, literally and make expectations clear – if not then he can’t understand. As you said, things like “behave yourself” he wont really know what to do, so I have to tell him things “sitting” “waiting” and using signs to help him understand and process it too.

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  3. Its basic child rearing and should be used for all children. Two separate friends with autistic children dealt totally differently, one gave into every tantrum, put up with being thumped, bitten and kicked. It was clear that her son had no boundaries whatsoever. My other friend treated him the same as all of her children when it came to rules and breaking them, firmly told and set timeout or whatever was needed. I could see a different happier child in the latter family. I was sent to my room and left with no time frame, as I was quite well behaved and once told to go I obeyed. I ended up staying in my room all night sometimes. Great post.

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  4. I totally agree, for any parent this is useful advice. It must be doubly hard for you but certainly I find discipline difficult…and I absolutely agree that it’s important not to lose your temper!

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  5. My children aren’t autistic, but what you say here makes a lot of sense, even for those with non-autistic children. And you’re right – I’m neurotypical and I’ve been a hair-twirler all my life! I’ve made half-hearted attempts to stop, but have come to the conclusion that, if people don’t like it, that’s there problem.

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  6. Some excellent advice Astrid. We really struggle with this with our ASD children. There is also the difficulty with extremely high functioning children verbally dissecting and challenging everything you say. Less is more with verbal instruction, when they are full of “feeling” communication is difficult. x

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  7. What a tough subject, and you really made me think. I do not have an autistic child, yet I feel you’ve given me a few things to think about. I do shout, and I hate that I do it – we can all learn a thing or two about your insights. So thanks.

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  8. Great article and stuff that makes all us parents think about what we do. Also, what’s so bad about playing with your hair? Far worse stuff you could do!!

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    1. I’m sorry for the confusion. I thought more of you thought so already but I wanted to clarify that I don’t have a child. I’m just an autistic adult reflecting on my own childhood and giving advice to parents of autistics from here. I know quite a few autistics who do have autistic children themseves, but I’m not among them.

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  9. I am so glad you stopped by my blog, Living and Learning With Our New Normal, Astrid! I don’t know why my link up didn’t work. I put up a new one and would love for you to link up this post! You have given me a lot of insight in dealing with Bethany’s aggressive behavior. I hope you’ll join our link up every week! I’m sure you have much valuable wisdom for us! I’d also like to invite you to write a guest post for me if that is something you’re interested.

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  10. Thank you so much for this. I found your post on faithfulmomof9.com in the comments. I have an 11 year old Aspie girl…or I guess now it is classified as high functioning autism. We struggle greatly. She is so high functioning but at the same time has a lot of challenges that most don’t recognize. She argues and corrects all the time. I do tend to end up yelling….a lot. I don’t like that at all but sometimes that’s the only way to get her to stop. 😦 I’m definitely going to coming back here. Your advice is great. I am struggling to get her to do any school and that school takes hours for one subject. We homeschool so this makes for a very long day.

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  11. An autistic child may throw tantrum or behave aggressively when he is disappointed or frustrated as other children do. But he is not doing it intentionally, because as an autistic child, he is unable to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings. Punishment must fit the crime. Whenever possible, the only punishment should be experiencing the natural and logical consequences of an undesirable action. If an undesirable behavior happens repeatedly, and neither incentives nor disincentives seem to curb it, you should look closer for hidden causes. Behavior analysis techniques can be very useful in this regard.

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  12. Thank you for your post. It helped me get an additional idea. An autistic child may throw tantrum or behave aggressively when he is disappointed or frustrated as other children do. But he is not doing it intentionally, because as an autistic child, he is unable to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings. Punishment must fit the crime. Whenever possible, the only punishment should be experiencing the natural and logical consequences of an undesirable action. If an undesirable behavior happens repeatedly, and neither incentives nor disincentives seem to curb it, you should look closer for hidden causes. Behavior analysis techniques can be very useful in this regard.

    Like

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