How to Discipline a Child with Autism

Mother disciplining child

One of the challenges parents face is how to discipline a child with autism. Each child is unique, and the best approach depends on the individual case. Parents can work with their child's treatment team to develop behavior intervention plans that work.

How to Discipline a Child with Autism

An autism diagnosis is not an excuse for bad behavior, and parents can keep their expectations high for their children on the spectrum. Autistic children may have challenging behaviors, and it is important to recognize their behaviors are like those of any other child, only magnified. In addition, many children on the spectrum are unable to make connections between actions and consequences.

Punishment is ineffective because the child may not make a connection between the consequence and the negative behavior. How can a child who has trouble understanding cause-and-effect be disciplined? Focus on what the child should do rather than what he shouldn't do.

Positive Focus

Discipline should not begin when the child is behaving poorly; it may be more effective to begin by helping the child understand what behavior is expected of her. Rather than focusing on what the child shouldn't do, focus on the desired behavior.If you were starting a new job and your supervisor only gave you feedback on your mistakes, you would become agitated very quickly. This is especially true if the supervisor never took the time to guide you in the right direction. If you only hear about what you shouldn't be doing, you have little understanding of what the job actually entails.

Wouldn't it be much easier to have clear, concise instructions? Just as a supervisor should outline job duties and expectations, parents should outline expectations for their child's behavior. Approaches include:

  • Immediate, meaningful and concrete reinforcement for desired behavior
  • Using interests to encourage appropriate behavioral responses
  • Using visual aids as prompts
  • Using siblings and peers as role models
  • Incorporating expected behaviors into the child's daily routine
  • Using a printable behavior chart
  • Giving the child enjoyable tasks to complete

Consider the language as well. For example, replace "Stop running!" with "Show me how you walk." This puts the focus on the desired behavior rather than the negative behavior.

Misbehaving is bound to happen, and this applies to all children. It helps to understand the function of the behavior to develop a plan to discipline the child.

Function of Behavior

Behavior is essentially communication, and behavior has a function. Children may engage in behaviors to get a desired response. Reasons a child may engage in negative behavior include:

  • Basic needs are not being met: Is the child hungry, thirsty or tired?
  • Avoidance: Does the child get out of completing an undesirable task after engaging in the behavior?
  • Inconsistent consequences: Is the child gambling with behavior because responses vary?
  • Testing: Is the child trying to test limits?
  • Attention seeking behavior: Do you drop everything and give your child full attention when he or she is acting up?
  • Sensory problems: Is there sensory input that could be uncomfortable, distracting or painful to the child?

How can parents tell the difference between a tantrum caused by genuine fear or discomfort from tantrums caused by attention seeking or avoidance? The differences can be very difficult to detect, but many parents are able to tell by the urgency of the behavior:

  • Does the behavior seem to spring up out of nowhere?
  • Is the child panicked?
  • Does the behavior occur in a certain setting or around certain people?

Autism is not an excuse for bad behavior, but it is important to distinguish between bad behavior and behavior that stems from genuine fear and anxiety. Some behaviors, no matter what the source, are nonnegotiable.

Nonnegotiable Behavior

Disciplining a child with autism may involve dealing with nonnegotiable behaviors. This type of behavior should not be ignored:

  • Injuring others
  • Injuring self
  • Damaging property

Parents can work with their child's treatment team to develop a safe crisis management intervention plan depending on the severity of the behavior. Read 10 Ways to Deal with Tantrums for strategies that may be effective.

Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can be very effective because the child quickly learns to make connections through motivation. Punishment is not motivating, and connections are less likely to be made, especially when punishment is inconsistent. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, can be effective.

What Is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishment. A parent can use negative reinforcement to shape behavior, and the approach uses an undesirable task to achieve results. For example, a child may dislike doing puzzles. Parent can encourage compliant behavior by cutting a puzzle activity short after the child follows directions without whining.The target behavior is following directions and the negative behavior is whining. The child learns that he is able to finish the task immediately once she stops whining. Otherwise, the activity continues.

Developing Plans for Discipline

Learning how to discipline a child with autism takes discipline. One of the best things you can do is to develop a plan for dealing with negative behaviors, and follow through consistently. In order to be consistent, it is helpful to follow your parenting style.

Parenting an autistic child is challenging, and dealing with difficult behaviors can be exhausting. If you work with your child consistently, behavior will improve.

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How to Discipline a Child with Autism