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How To Discipline A Child With Autism

Published on 02/21/2022
how to discipline a child with autism

Discipline shapes our understanding of which behaviors are desirable and which ones are not. While children with autism may become overwhelmed or overstimulated with some of the more traditional forms of discipline (lecturing, raising the voice, rapid movements, etc.), structure and consistency go a long way. 

8 Recommendations For Disciplining A Child With ASD

The exciting news for parents and guardians is that the same techniques and recommendations for disciplining a child with autism work equally well with other children. The whole family benefits when these eight tips are at the forefront of encouraging sustainable behaviors.

Understand the behaviors that are hard for someone with ASD to control

It’s important that some of the typical behaviors or actions associated with ASD are not associated with punishment. These include things like:

  • Screaming and yelling when overstimulated
  • Flapping their hands or rocking
  • Inflicting self-harm by hitting or banging their head
  • Biting their hands or fingers
  • Aggression with peers or adults 

Knowing these and other signs of autism, along with ASD-related behaviors, helps to distinguish between which is which. The more structure and support a child with ASD receives, the more the above behaviors diminish. 

Focus on positive reinforcement

Parents have a tendency to remain silent or to hardly notice when things are going well, but are quick to verbalize or demonstrate when things are going wrong. This is the reverse of what we want. Ideally, children should experience about 95% of their lives in acceptance and connection, with only about 5% dedicated to correction or discipline. 

This can be shocking for most families because the balance - autism or not - is usually more in the inverse proportion of those numbers. Not to worry. The first step is to provide plenty of positive reinforcement every time you notice something going well. Explain what you’re seeing and why it’s desired:

  • Thank you for putting those blocks away - it keeps our home tidy.
  • I appreciate you sharing with your brother - it shows him that you care about him.
  • Way to get your clothes on before the timer went off this morning. Now we’re going to be on time for school.
  • Great work trying to maintain an inside voice in the grocery store when you were upset

Children with ASD respond well to behavior reward charts, such as earning extra time for a favorite activity (games, TV, etc.) or a prize for getting XX stickers in a row. 

Be clear about the rules

Spoken rules aren’t enough for any child, especially those with ASD. Rules should be clearly written in a visible location. If a child can’t read, they should be displayed in picture or visual form. 

For example, no games are played until you are dressed for school, homework is done, or the dinner table is cleared. The rule remains the same, although the requirements evolve as a child ages. Once they’re done with the “chore” or “expectation,” use a time chart to show how long they have to play. 

The more the rules are structured, clear, and consistently enforced, the easier it is for children to follow them. 

Be clear about the consequences

That segues into the next recommendation, which is a clear protocol for rule infractions. Again, these should be age and child-specific. The best consequences are a natural outcome of the behavior. 

For example, not getting ready for school on time means less time to play after school. Requiring your help to pick up a particular toy or game may require extra work to help you pick up or clean up something in your realm. If a child throws a toy, the toy should be removed from the mix for a set period of time, maybe 10 minutes for a toddler, an hour or the afternoon, for an older child, and a matter of days or a week for adolescents and teens.

Consistent reinforcement of expected consequences helps children with autism establish more control around avoiding behaviors that result in a consequence or punishment.

Teach self-calming techniques

Toddlers and very young children typically calm or soothe with secure hugs using consistent pressure. As children get older, begin exploring other self-calming techniques. Examples include:

  • Breathing in and out through the nose while closing their eyes and picturing a favorite place or image.
  • Using trusted adults for hugs or holds that soothe.
  • Having a smooth worry stone in the pocket that can be rubbed when agitation rises.
  • Learning to follow an “escape plan” (understood by teachers, coaches, etc.) so the child can remove themselves to a quiet space until ready to return.
  • Listening to a particular song or looking at a favorite image may help. This can also be built into a child’s IEP at school.

As children learn to identify rising agitation, they are equally capable to learn self-soothing techniques that are employed as a mid-step in the discipline plan. Parents, adults, teachers, and coaches may offer the calming technique first before an actual disciplinary action takes place.

For example, if a child is talking back, saying inappropriate things, or beginning to act aggressive, saying, “Robbie, this is a good time to use ‘fill-in-the-blank-soothing-technique,’ or else you’ll have to sit this game out.

Control the environment

Do your best to control the environment, which means saying no to places or experiences that are unfamiliar or may include triggers. Creating opportunities for a child to interact with the family and others in environments that feel safe, optimizes the chance to reward positive behaviors and responses with positive reinforcements.

That said, Rule #2 in our list of What Not to Do With a Child With Autism is don’t automatically turn down invites to parties, play dates, or social get-togethers. There is a balance between keeping your child’s life trigger-free and exposing them to situations in ways that foster the ability to learn more about their limits, self-soothing techniques, and how to maintain positive behaviors and responses in less-than-ideal settings.

Discipline a child with ASD with time outs 

Time outs are effective and work as a physical removal OR the removal of something physical. Your child may benefit from a time out to help calm himself, after which he can return to the group. Or, she might benefit from a time out from a favorite toy or activity as discipline for unwanted behaviors. 

If social engagements and faux pas are a problem, a time out with a parent or trusted sibling/guardian offers the chance to discuss the social rules or expectations and role play to practice for a better outcome in the future.

Get professional support

Every child, family, and situation is different. If standard tactics aren’t working, it might be time to work with professionals to create a behavior plan that supports effective discipline for a child with autism. Reach out in your community and take advantage of the resources available to you. A professional assessment can reveal things you never knew or connected before, which leads to personalized planning that resonates more effectively with your child.

Contact the Autism Response Team to learn more about how family-centric behavior plans will support your household. Plus, we can connect you with other parents and families with the same struggles and celebrations, so you feel more connected and supported.

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