As humans, we are social beings, governed by societal expectations. To be functional in society, our social conduct is important and, because of this, teaching children “good” behavior from a young age is key. One way children can learn what types of behavior are appropriate is through discipline—it is part of educating your child to learn right from wrong and understand socially acceptable and respectful behavior.
Implementing discipline strategies can be challenging and often require the parents to enforce consequences to a negative behavior. When you discipline a child with autism, this challenge is somewhat heightened. This is because many children with autism find it difficult to understand non-verbal social communication cues such as facial expression. Nonetheless, it is possible!
To aid your journey into parenting a special needs child, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide that will hopefully help you figure out how to best discipline your child with autism and why it is important to do so.
Why are rules and discipline important for autistic children?
As adults, society’s rules are important because they guide us in our everyday lives. Our ability to interact with others is more effective when we’re aware of our actions in relation to others; it renders us sensitive to how others may perceive us.
It is important to teach children with autism rules because, without them, their experience of the world can be more stressful and anxiety-provoking. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) perceive the world differently, their perception of the world can be a scary experience; therefore, by teaching them rules and enforcing discipline, they develop greater understanding of how the world around them works, and can therefore become more adaptive. Understanding life’s rules also provides a sense of independence as your child grows up as he/she can understand what is expected by society and various social situations.
Research has shown that children with ASD face challenges forming connections with facial cues and more obvious/salient cues. Many children on the autism spectrum also find it difficult to learn, apply, and be flexible to abstract rules.
Additionally, research has also shown many parents have reported children with autism show non-compliance habits, oppositional behavior, and aggression. These behavioral challenges can affect the child’s educational attainment, cause challenges at home, and impact his/her social development. When rules are taught and understood, they become evident in their behavior; the more rules children understand and apply, the better their behavior will be. If a child does not follow the rules set out for him/her or displays challenging behaviors, discipline can be applied so that he/she learns for next time.
How can I discipline a child with autism?
Firstly, it is important to understand that discipline does not always have to involve physically punishing your child, for example spanking. Many people do not agree with physical punishment and, chances are your autistic child will not understand why he/she is being spanked and what may be happening in the moment, other than “this hurts”. If your child is already distressed, physical punishment could cause further distress and, if your child self-harms, this behavior could worsen; or the child may think that it’s okay to hit someone else if he/she is unhappy about another’s actions.
Ultimately, as a parent, you are your child’s best expert! This means that you know best which method of discipline works for your child and your style of parenting. Remember, the goal is to teach him/her to learn what is acceptable and what isn’t so that they become functional in their everyday lives socially.
Here are some ideas to consider when disciplining your autistic child.
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Strategies for disciplining autistic children
When disciplining problem behaviors, it is always important to consider what your child is trying to communicate through that behavior; this especially is important for children with autism who are non-verbal. Not every behavior is meant to challenge power, or cause anguish, some behaviors are simply a way of screaming: “listen to me!”
Here are some discipline ideas to consider at home:
Some children with autism might enforce an unwanted behavior to get your attention
- if this is the case; ignore their behavior. Your child may feed into your susceptibilities which makes him/her want to continue doing it because he/she will get a reaction out of you
Understand your child’s physiological needs
- Many children with autism are sensitive to sensory input; some can be overstimulated/hyper-reactive to sensory input and others can be understimulated/hypo-reactive to sensory input. His/her behavior as a result can become somewhat aggressive in effort to feed into their sensory needs; your child’s needs could be the cause of the negative behavior. In these situations, it might be better to consider what sensory stimuli is causing the behavior and change the environment rather than enforce discipline
Change your mindset during the behavior
- This is especially challenging when you’re in the moment and possibly dealing with your own stress. However, for the best interest of your child, patience is important to understanding your child’s needs
Teach your child that every behavior has a consequence
- Good behavior affords a reward, and unwanted behavior results in some form of punishment such as taking away a favorite toy or being grounded. Applying a reward system at home and helping your child to learn this could help him/her apply rules more effectively
- For a behavior to become a habit, it needs to occur frequently, whether the behavior is good or bad. Be consistent in how you discipline your child. Overtime, he/she will learn what is not acceptable and what is and therefore change will occur. So, stay the course!
What to avoid when disciplining your autistic child
Avoid using harsh tones
- When your child with autism is already aroused, speaking with an aggressive tone may worsen the situation. This is especially likely to occur if he/she has difficulties understanding social cues. It could also make your child even more aggressive
Avoid physically spanking your child
- Your child may be “acting out” in distress or pain and not know how to communicate it; or he/she may be seeking your attention. For this reason, and a number of others, physical punishment such as spanking should be the last resort
Avoid harmful objects when disciplining your child
- If your child is susceptible to self-harm, he/she may likely grab any form of item that they could use to do so. Be vigilant when disciplining your child and ensure there are no objects in your environment that could be a potential source of danger
Using ABA principles to discipline
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy offers some techniques to adapt behavior from unwanted behavior to preferred behavior that translates into our everyday lives. ABA focuses on the “why” and the “how” aspects of behavior to implement an intervention; the “why” refers to the cause of the behavior and the “how” refers to the tools that can effectively be used to change the unwanted behavior to a preferred behavior.
The “ABC” in ABA is the foundation to applying ABA for disciplining your child with autism. The acronym stands for: Antecedent; Behavior, Consequence. The antecedent is the event that occurs before the behavior, the behavior is the observable action, and the consequence is what happens with the child as a result of the event. Once you have a clear understanding of the cause of the behavior (the antecedent), it is much easier to predict the consequence after the behavior.
Using the principles of “ABC”, as a parent, you’re in a better place to respond to situations and teach a preferred response before they even occur; so that in the event a challenge does occur; the child is better adapted to respond accordingly.
Looking at the ABC, the consequence has two factors; reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is used when a reward follows a preferred behavioral outcome; this increases the frequency that that positive behavior will occur. On the other hand, punishment is the removal of a reward when an unwanted behavior occurs; this decreases the occurrence of the unwanted behavior.
When disciplining your autistic child, consider which behaviors you’d like to occur more frequently, and which are non-adaptive or unwanted. The purpose of discipline is to develop socially acceptable behavior in your autistic child and find strategies the child will understand. Therefore, it is important to work from your child’s perspective; this means that If he/she can only understand simple instructions, discipline has to be straightforward and understandable.
While discipline can be an uncomfortable term to get used to; it is critical when raising a child with autism. When a child learns discipline, his/her understanding of rules in terms of social behavior becomes much simpler to apply. However, it always starts by understanding the cause of your child’s behavior; some behaviors are attention-seeking, others are due to internal challenges that he/she may be trying to communicate.
Listen to your child’s needs and adapt any discipline strategies accordingly. Remember that your child can think and feel just the same as any other child; the way in which he/she may express this may be different than the “norm” but they’re capable regardless. Growing a human takes effort and patience, don’t give up!
Berliner, S.E., Moskowitz, L.J., Braconnier, M. et al. (2020). The Role of Parental Attributions and Discipline in Predicting Child Problem Behavior in Preschoolers with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 32, 695–717 . https://doi.org/10.1007/s10882-019-09715-y
Jones, E. J., Webb, S. J., Estes, A., & Dawson, G. (2013) Rule learning in autism: the role of reward type and social context. Developmental neuropsychology, 38(1), 58–77. https://doi.org/10.1080/87565641.2012.727049
Pratt, C., & Dubie, M. (2008) Observing Behavior Using A-B-C Data. The Reporter, 14(1), 1-4. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/observing-behavior-using-a-b-c-data.html
Shawler, P. M., & Sullivan, M. A. (2017). Parental Stress, Discipline Strategies, and Child Behavior Problems in Families With Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 32(2), 142–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357615610114