Tag Archives: Behavior Modification

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.