Children on the autism spectrum struggle with unique behavioral issues and knowing how to discipline them isn’t always easy. It may take a lot of time and patience, but with consistency and the right techniques, you’ll be able to successfully correct your child’s undesired behaviors.
Here are our best tips on how to discipline children with autism and guide them toward appropriate behavior.
Behavioral Issues Found in Autistic Children
Autistic children tend to display disruptive behaviors that can be difficult to manage. Understanding the reason behind these behaviors and responding in a positive manner will help you better deal with the challenges of disciplining your child.
Here are some of the most common behavioral issues among children on the autism spectrum:
Obsessive behaviors and intense interests are a frequent occurrence in children with autism. They can be focused on the object of their obsession, whether it’s a TV show, a game, or a certain type of animal, for hours on end and become upset when you attempt to interrupt them.
If you have difficulties convincing your child to move on to a different activity, you may try giving plenty of warning and reminders before it’s time to switch in order to ease the transition. You can also use your child’s obsession as a reward and motivation for good behavior. They could earn points toward getting a new toy or watching their favorite show, for example.
Autistic children may throw tantrums simply because they don’t know how to respond to a sensory overload. Tell your child that throwing a tantrum is not acceptable and take him/her away from the situation. A stress-relief tool such as a fidget or another sensory item can help your child calm down.
Studies show that around 25% of children with autism display aggressive behaviors like throwing or intentionally breaking objects, and that close to two-thirds of autistic children are aggressive toward their caregivers. If your child becomes aggressive, he/she should be removed from the situation immediately. Talk to your child about the appropriate behavior once he/she has calmed down.
Besides harming others, autistic children may also direct aggressive behavior toward themselves. The most common forms of self-harming include head banging, hand biting, and excessive scratching. For children with autism, this may be a way to self-soothe and deal with stress and anxiety. If your child shows any tendencies toward self-injury, consult your pediatrician or applied behavior analysis specialist to receive adequate support.
Children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties reading others’ emotions and understanding the nuances of social interactions. Miscommunication can make them seem rude or misbehaving. To teach your child about the rules of social interactions, you may consider using visual aids such as social stories, visual schedules, or electronic devices that will clearly show them what behavior is expected in different situations.
Not sitting still
Most autistic children have sensory processing issues that make it difficult to sit still and focus on a particular task or activity. To help your children pay attention and sit still, be positive and specific in your demands. Give simple, short instructions and don’t forget to praise your child for their efforts.
Not following instructions
Autistic children often need more time than other children to process what you ask them to do. They may also feel overwhelmed, angry, and frustrated if asked to do several things at once. Your child may refuse to do something, like entering a noisy room or eating foods with particular textures, for example, due to their sensory issues.
Or perhaps the instructions are too complicated, and your child simply doesn’t have the right skills to accomplish the task. Make sure to start by providing simple instructions and when your child is ready, gradually ask him/her to follow more complex directions. These skills may take lots of time and practice to develop. Whenever your child completes the instruction correctly, reinforce their behavior.
Techniques to Help Discipline Your Autistic Child
All children need consistent rules, clear structure, and discipline in order to thrive, and children with autism are no exception. Although traditional discipline techniques may not work for autistic children, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discipline them. Disciplining an autistic child has many benefits like:
- Helping them understand what behaviors are appropriate in certain situations.
- Developing the ability to get along with others.
- Helping them understand, express, and deal with their feelings.
Positive reinforcement strategies
With positive reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by providing a reinforcer such as a toy, activity, or simply your attention. Children with autism respond much better to the discipline techniques that focus on positive reinforcement than punishment. Telling your child what you like about their behavior will motivate them to keep behaving well. Positive reinforcement can be done by praising and/or rewarding appropriate behavior.
It is important that your praise for your child’s positive behavior is concrete and immediate. Describe exactly what aspect of behavior you are praising, for example, “you did well to stay calm even if you didn’t win the game.” If your child has limited verbal skills, you may need to adapt your communication style to their needs. Keep your words simple—say “be gentle,” instead of “you know that you should be gentle when playing with your brother.”
However, some autistic children don’t respond well to praise. Children who withdraw from others might not be motivated to behave in a certain way to please someone else. In this case, it is more efficient to use visual schedules, token boards, or sticker charts as a form of positive reinforcement. These tools will both help convey your expectations more clearly, encourage your child to associate a desirable behavior with a positive outcome, and serve as a visual record of their progress.
Negative reinforcement strategies
Negative reinforcement is an effective method for disciplining autistic children, including those with significant behavioral issues. Through negative reinforcement, you can use an undesirable task to shape your child’s behavior. This technique is not to be mistaken for punishment that produces a negative outcome in an attempt to change behavior.
For example, your child may not like doing puzzles. You can encourage your child’s compliant behavior and following instructions by reducing the duration of the activity if the child follows directions without throwing a tantrum. Your child is allowed to do something else as soon as he/she starts behaving well.
ABA (applied behavior analysis) is a form of behavioral therapy that focuses on changing unwanted behaviors in an autistic child and reinforcing desirable ones. ABA therapy provides targeted treatment based on each child’s strengths and weaknesses. It seeks to understand the reason behind the unwanted behaviors and give your child the tools needed to start choosing the appropriate ones.
Sometimes autistic children might seem like they’re misbehaving when in reality they don’t have the skills to handle unfamiliar or difficult situations. If your child doesn’t greet someone, for instance, he/she is not necessarily being rude, but simply might not know what behavior is expected in the given situation.
ABA therapy relies on positive reinforcement to encourage behavioral changes. When a desirable behavior is followed by a reward, like a special toy or preferred activity, children are more likely to repeat the action. This form of therapy uses strategies like role plays, social stories, and video modeling to help autistic children develop social skills.
Autism Discipline: What Not to Do
Punishing an autistic child is not an effective discipline strategy. Your child may simply not be able to understand the connection between the consequence and negative behavior. What’s more, punishment as a discipline method can potentially have negative effects on your autistic child and inadvertently reinforce the very same behavior you are trying to decrease.
Yelling, threatening, and criticizing
Yelling, threatening, and criticizing your child with autism can often backfire and do more harm than good. Your child may even become more disruptive over time. Remember that the goal of disciplining your autistic child is to provide an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and not to lower their self-esteem.
You should avoid physically disciplining your autistic child. Physical punishment may make the undesirable behavior stop immediately, but it doesn’t direct your child toward the correct behavior. On the contrary, it shows that hitting is an appropriate response to a challenging situation.
Time out is a reactive punishment method that should be avoided with autistic children. In fact, a child with autism who appreciates being alone might consider a traditional time out rewarding. Instead, after your child does something wrong, you can suggest a substitute behavior. If your child is hitting you to get your attention, work on replacing that behavior with a more appropriate one like asking for help or tapping your shoulder.
Tips for Disciplining Your Autistic Child
- Work on one behavior at a time. Don’t try to fix all of your child’s behavioral issues at once. Instead, concentrate on one problematic behavior, preferably starting with the most disruptive one.
- Set clear rules and expectations. Let your child know how you expect them to behave and what your family rules and limits are. Also, your child should know that the consequences reflect their inappropriate behavior and that they are not permanent.
- Be consistent. Always make sure to follow through with your strategy. Autistic children often respond positively to structured discipline, and they do much better when the outcome of a situation is predictable.
- Develop an individual plan. Every autistic child experiences unique behavioral challenges. Your child’s treatment team will help you develop a behavior intervention plan that consists of combinations of suitable strategies for your child.
- Choose natural and logical consequences. For example, if your child refuses to pick up the toys, take them away for a certain period of time. This will make it easier for your child to understand the situation and will help them replace poor behaviors with more appropriate ones.
- Establish whether your child is misbehaving. Before starting to discipline your autistic child, it’s important to determine if the behavior is a result of their autism or if your child is misbehaving. If your child frequently throws tantrums when you give instructions, it may be a behavioral issue that requires a different set of strategies.
- Manage non-negotiable behaviors. Disciplining a child with autism often involves dealing with non-negotiable behaviors like self-injury, harming others, and damaging things. Your child’s treatment team can help you develop a safety intervention plan depending on the severity of your child’s behavior.
- Anticipate your child’s behaviors and determine consequences in advance so that you are well prepared when the situation occurs.
- Don’t take away your child’s soothing objects. Calming objects and sensory tools like fidget spinners may help relieve tension and prevent tantrums and should never be taken away as a form of punishment.
- Put the safety of your child first. Remove your child from any situation that is emotionally or physically unsafe either for them or others.