Disciplining Autistic Children in Schools

Children smiling for camera

Disciplining children with autism, especially in a school setting, needs to be done with planning and care. According to WebMD, children with autism relate to others differently than a child with typical development. For this reason, autistic children need special discipline techniques to meet their special developmental needs. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends several behavioral strategies to assist educators in disciplining autistic children.

Applied Behavioral Analysis

Applied Behavioral Analysis has been a successful discipline method for autistic children in the school setting. Applied Behavior Analysis uses natural cues in your child’s environment to influence appropriate behaviors. Your child’s teacher will look for triggers to his negative behavior, as well as what happens during and after the negative behavior to encourage it to continue. The teacher will then make every attempt to remove the trigger and replace it with a more positive stimulus. For example, your child might be triggered to act out negatively when it is time to switch from reading (his favorite subject) to science (his least favorite). Your child’s teacher would give him a five-minute warning that the class change was taking place. She could go to his desk at the time of change and assist your child in putting his reading book away and taking out his science book. She might also employ a classroom helper to sit with your child for the first few minutes of the lesson to help with the transition period. As your child becomes more comfortable with the change, this assistance can gradually be removed.

Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH)

The TEACCH system uses highly structured curriculums and boundaries to keep autistic children on task and focused in the classroom. Schedules are personalized for each child and use the child’s strengths to assist him throughout the day. The TEACCH system operates on the belief that problem behaviors serve a function for the autistic child; therefore, recognition of the cause is important to changing the negative behavior. The TEACCH system builds support into the autistic child’s schedule to avoid meltdowns and problematic behaviors. Educators teach the autistic children alternative behaviors that will achieve the same results as the problem behavior. The hope is over time these new behaviors will replace the negative behaviors as a means to an end for the child.

Pictoral Behavior Charts

Children with high-functioning autism, such as Asperger's Syndrome, can benefit from pictoral behavior charts depicting the accepted behaviors expected from them. Your child’s teacher can write down the expected behaviors for each class period, and your child or a teacher’s aide can mark down whether or not your child met the expectation. For a child who struggles to read, the teacher can draw pictures or use symbols (similar to the PECS system) to help your child understand the expectations. Verbal praise for the expected behaviors will help these to become commonplace. Redirection and planned ignorance will work for some misbehavior, but the teacher should avoid time outs or scolding, as this will only shame your child and could cause further outbursts. Severe outbursts or problem behavior, particularly if your child becomes loud or violent, should be dealt with by removing the child from the classroom for some cool-down time. The teacher should then discuss with your child the reason for his outburst (if he can verbalize this) or ask other classmates to identify triggers that led to the problem behavior.

Alternative Methods

Parents and educators can work together to provide a realistic and workable discipline plan for the autistic child. Changes in diet or certain medications, such as risperidone, can assist an autistic child who has serious behavioral struggles. Disciplining a child with autism in the school setting is challenging, but with patience and the appropriate resources, you can achieve a positive outcome. Proper discipline means a happier classroom, a happier child and more opportunity for learning.

Disciplining Autistic Children in Schools