Most parents would agree that disciplining a child doesn't come easily. At the same time, consequences and safety matter, making discipline a crucial part of parenting. Every child is different, and this can impact the modes of discipline you use as a parent.
In this article, we will discuss whether or not parents should discipline a child with Autism and, if so, how to do it. Lastly, I will address some frequently asked questions about disciplining a child with Autism.
Should I Discipline My Autistic Child?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), often called Autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It's a condition that doesn't go away, and it is characterized by issues with social relationships, communication, and restrictive, repetitive interests and behaviors.
Alongside love, support, and positive reinforcement, reasonable consequences are important for children. The word "discipline" can seem like a scary word, but it doesn't need to reflect the classic punishments (like time-outs or spanking) we might think of when we hear it. Rather than cause behavior problems, the goal is to help your child with special needs be as happy and healthy as possible.
In short, the answer to "Should I discipline my child with Autism?" is "yes" - appropriately and as necessary.
Discipline Strategies for an Autistic Child
Keeping in mind that your child's brain works differently, it can be beneficial to learn about specific discipline strategies for a child with Autism. Here are some steps to take as a parent who wants to know how to discipline a child with Autism.
Learn About Your Autistic Child's Condition
Learning about your neurotypical child's condition is crucial for discipline as it can help you learn why your child might engage in certain behaviors. Children with ASD can be easily overwhelmed in very stimulating environments, like noisy, crowded, or particularly bright places.
Or they may seek out stimulation and be unable to sit still, needing to move constantly by spinning, hand flapping, fidgeting, or even making repetitive noises. Sudden changes in routine or transitions between activities can be very difficult for these children to handle and may cause tantrums or agitation.
Your child may have varying levels of verbal and communication abilities as well, from difficulty understanding social interactions, to being completely nonverbal. Headbutting and other forms of self-injury, meltdowns, and so on when feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, are all common in kids with ASD, and for someone without ASD, it can be tough to understand.
When you know why your child reacts in the way they do, you can help them replace it with more adaptive and good behaviors. Learning about Autism can also help you understand what works when it comes to discipline.
Use Rewards and Consequences
If your child attends school, sees an occupational therapist, or works with a tutor, you may have noticed that these professionals use reward systems. Though not always, reward systems and consequences are common tools for discipline, learning, and motivation.
Examples of rewards might include experiences (going to the park, or time to spend playing a game) and small, safe, age-appropriate items ( stickers for a sticker chart). The key here is to make sure that these rewards are something that your child with Autism will truly want, like a favorite toy. To make this happen, you might relate rewards to a special interest, for example. Maybe, your child has a special interest in dinosaurs. In that case, the reward can relate to dinosaurs.
Have Clear Expectations
Literal thinking is seen in people with Autism, so clear expectations are necessary. Be specific with clear rules about what exactly you want them to do and how exactly you want them to do it, and use simple language to verbalize it. If your child has questions, make sure that you answer them in a patient, calm, and clear fashion.
Seek Professional Help
The support of professionals is often incredibly beneficial for people with Autism and other conditions. Two frequently used and effective modes of professional support that are useful for kids with Autism include applied behavior analysis (aba) and occupational therapy.
Behavior therapy with a mental health professional can help child’s behavior and coping skills; occupational therapy can help with the pursuit of daily activities. Young children with Autism may also benefit from educational interventions, social skills training, and other forms of support. A medical professional will typically be able to recommend specific treatments for your child based on their needs.
Have a Positive Outlook
A positive outlook matters. It's something your child will often be able to sense and feel. Disabilities certainly come with challenges, but many people with Autism succeed - even far beyond what's expected. You can also choose professionals based on their outlook.
Listen to your gut and how you feel about a professional's approach. Your own positive outlook will help your child take on an "I can do it" attitude themselves. When negative feelings and worries arise, know that it doesn't make you a bad parent; a therapist or counselor can help you process these things away from your child. It's important to have a support system. Along with this, it can be helpful to focus on positive behaviors, instead of negative ones.
Teach Self-Calming Techniques
Learning emotional regulation tactics is vital for those with Autism. Alexithymia may occur in those with Autism, which can make it hard to identify emotions. Simultaneously, high levels of emotional distress often occur. Since distress can be high for these kids, they must have tools. Self-calming techniques to teach a child with Autism might include:
- Sensory tools and/or sensory-friendly spaces. Stim toys, weighted blankets, and quiet spaces with dim lighting are excellent self-regulation tools for times of distress. Try different things to find out which works best for your child.
- Breathing exercises. There are simple breathing exercises that can be used for kids. For safety, sit with your child and engage in breathing exercises with them.
- Help to find words to express and identify emotions. If a kid doesn't know how to express an emotion healthily, it can be a trigger for outbursts. A feelings wheel can help with this because it provides specific words to point to or say out loud to identify the emotion.
- Sing comfort songs. If there is a song that your child enjoys and it helps to calm them down (IE, "puff the magic dragon," "twinkle twinkle little star," or "somewhere over the rainbow''), this can be a fantastic and easy tool. The song(s) that works best will differ from child to child.
- Distractions. In some cases, teaching a child to read, color, or play a game when they start to get overwhelmed (before an outburst) can be a preventative measure. What you allow as a distraction and see as a healthy distraction may vary based on the needs and challenges of your child.
- Physical activity. Physical activity is a great outlet that can support emotional regulation and may be helpful for people with Autism.
Have a Routine and Be Consistent
Routine and consistency are vital for all kids. With Autism, it's even more important; people with Autism thrive on routines and consistency. Here are some tips:
- Follow through with what you say. If you say that there will be a consequence, make sure that you stick to it. Similarly, if you offer your child a reward, make sure that you follow through. Children need to learn that they can trust that what you're telling them is true, and that can be achieved only if your actions align with what you tell them.
- Build a stable routine that is supportive long-term. If you want your child to engage in an activity on a regular basis, such as a specific chore, brushing their teeth, and so on, implement that into their daily routine. This will help them establish long-term adaptive and healthy habits.
- Ease into change. For example, let's say that your child is starting school soon. You may take them to the school before it starts and explain, "This is where I will drop you off, this is where I will pick you up," and any other relevant information. Use patience as your child adjusts. If a child is distressed, let them know that you know the change is tough. Be empathetic.
- Rewards and charts to help kids stick with and adjust to routines can be valuable, too.
Make Sure It's a Safe Environment
Aggressive behavior can be a challenge for some kids. There are various practices that parents can use to help create a safe environment, including:
- Physical safety measures. Remove dangerous items from the environment. You should also never engage in physical punishment for a child with autism.
- Replacement behaviors and tools. Often, aggressive behavior is a child's way of communicating a need, whether that's a need for space, a sensory need, or something else. Meeting that need in other ways (quiet time away from people, weighted blankets, and so on) before the behavior begins can help.
- Sensory-friendly safe spaces. Whether at home or in public, having a safe, quiet, sensory-friendly space to go to can make a big difference. Get in touch with the sensory needs of your child and how to accommodate them when they're overwhelmed or at risk of self-harm, aggression, and so on. Sensory overload can make it more overwhelming for the child, and exacerbate aggressive behaviors.
Kids with Autism can have additional and differing needs. Learning about Autism, providing clear expectations in simple language, using rewards and consequences, teaching calming techniques for self-regulation, routines, safety measures when applicable, and seeking professional help are some examples of what a parent can do for their child. If you are concerned that the practices you use aren't working for your family, make sure to consult with a specialist for individualized guidance.
Why do children with autism need rules and discipline?
All kids need rules and discipline. That said, kids with Autism often need additional support. This includes additional support in understanding social situations and norms, regulating emotions, engaging in self-care routines or chores, learning how to complete and succeed in daily activities, and so on. Consistent, appropriate, non-shaming, rules and modes of discipline offer a clear-cut understanding and are a mode of support in helping a child with functioning.
Why is structure important?
Structure provides reliability and is vital for all kids. However, for children with Autism who thrive on routine, it's particularly critical. People with Autism can struggle with change, and when structure is in place, it can help with functioning and meeting expectations. If kids have an additional co-occurring disability, such as a learning disability or ADHD, this is something that you can consider in the routines and practices you use.