Struggling with your child’s erratic behavior, especially when typical advice simply doesn’t apply? Learn how to discipline a child with autism and keep your home peaceful.
By: Kori Tomelden
Parents of autistic children like myself deal with common challenges (we’re no different from other parents, after all). But learning how to discipline a child with autism became one of our biggest ones.
Why? We had to differentiate between age-related and autism-related behavior. My daughter was young, after all, and temper tantrums were bound to happen as they do to all kids.
Thankfully, we found our solution with behavioral therapy. With behavioral therapy, you too can take many steps to minimize the symptoms of autism. In fact, when you take a look at the underlying behavior, everything else falls into place and life becomes more manageable for everyone.
How to discipline a child with autism
The basic principles of treatment—for adults and children both—are:
- finding and developing talent
- lifestyle changes
Start with an important and often overlooked step: helping your child find and develop her talents.
You see, people look for what’s wrong and focus on fixing the problems. Trouble is, the child is given the message that she’s defective in some way.
Instead, build confidence and joy in life by helping your child find something she’s good at.
Another effective solution is implementing structure. Planning the steps it takes to do daily tasks like getting ready for school or completing homework lets everyone know what to expect.
When it comes to instruction, keep it brief and to the point. An autistic child’s attention span will drift if instructions are too long and rambling. For both parents and teachers, this means breaking down tasks into little pieces.
Work as a team with all involved
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Keep everybody on the same page, from caregivers to teachers to doctors.
One effective tool is to keep a daily diary your child carries back and forth between home and school. Record her behavior at home for the teacher to see, and conversely, the teacher can write your child’s behavior at school:
This provides a written record of behavior as well as insight into what’s happening with the child in different situations.
You can also use token economics, a tool often used in schools to promote good behavior.
Some people feel that rewarding a child for behavior they should be doing anyway is an ineffective way to discipline. But autistic kids must have reinforcement such as rewards to give them something tangible to hold onto and to look forward to.
Kids with autism can’t always control their own behavior. Their head might be telling them to “behave,” but their disorder prevents them from doing so.
Earning points your child can exchange for other rewards or privileges can provide a great incentive to adjust behavior. You can even involve her by allowing her to develop a menu of rewards.
2. Use positive and immediate feedback
Kids hear “no” 50 times a day. Instead, emphasize the positive and downplay the negative by using “labeled praise” as a part of your discipline strategy.
Labeled praise defines what is positive about a child’s actions. For instance, “You did a great job of cleaning up!” would be more effective than simply saying “Thank you for helping me.”
Give immediate and frequent feedback along with consequences for behavior and activities. Feedback must be clear, specific, and occur as close to the time after the behavior that it refers to. Offer praise, compliments, hugs, or privileges, specifying exactly what your child did to earn it.
Autistic children may have a reduced sensitivity to rewards and other consequences. They need larger and more important rewards to motivate them to perform, follow rules, or behave well. Make the consequences powerful and worth avoiding or earning.
And finally, dole out the positive comments before the negative ones. Don’t make consequences your first move, and when you do, keep them mild and specific to a certain behavior.
3. Stay consistent
As parents of an autistic child, it’s easy to give in more often than we should, but this is the time when we shouldn’t. Respond in the same way to your child’s behavior whenever it occurs.
This is especially challenging when dealing with autistic kids, as they’re not exactly the most obedient (or so it appears). Even if you feel that your efforts are going to waste, stick to the disciplinary program or you won’t see the fruits of your hard work.
Respond in the same way, whether at home, at school, or anywhere else. For instance, avoid responding to the same behavior differently when you’re at home and in public. Your child needs to know that the rules and consequences expected at home will also apply elsewhere.
Out of the box discipline tips for autistic kids
- Have a plan. Autistic children can be difficult and disruptive in public places, and parents tend to get caught on the wrong foot every time. Devise a strategy to deal with it in advance so you’re prepared when it happens, making all the rules clear to your child in advance too. That way, when the problem occurs, both you and your child know the routine.
- Make lists. Seriously—as many lists as you can (and teach your child to do the same). These lists can include tasks to complete, dates to remember, and activities to attend. Provide her with a reward for completing tasks, checking things off lists, and remembering important dates.
- Accept your child’s limitations. Whether you like it or not, your child has limitations. See the virtues in your child and help him make the most of them.
- You’re the expert on your child. Autism is one of those controversial subjects that everybody has an opinion on. Tune out what’s uninformed. Instead, trust your instincts, communicate with your child about how she’s doing, and observe her behavior.
- Avoid labeling. Look at your child as a whole—she has her own temperament, talents, and interests. Beware of lumping in other problems that often occur in children with autism—including depression, anxiety and learning difficulties.
- Experts are getting better at understanding the differences between learning disabilities and autism. Sometimes they can overlap and that can be tricky and complicated to dissect. Understand which problems are truly part of autism and which are not, so you can deal with each problem appropriately.
- Stay calm. It’s easy to lose your cool when the child is out of control or hitting you or other kids. Speak slowly and precisely. Show her that even though you feel frustrated, you’re still able to stay in control. Talk to her about your feelings and how you’re coping with your own frustration. You’re teaching her the tools she needs to control her own frustration.
- Give yourself a break. It takes a lot of energy to live and work with kids who have autism. Give yourself space to calm down, either by using a sitter or by relaxing your demands for a particular time period.
Learning how to discipline a child with autism can be challenging, but not impossible.
Focus in finding your child’s special talents and skills, creating structure, and making lifestyle changes to accommodate her needs.
Use positive discipline as opposed to telling her what she can’t do, and provide immediate and positive feedback as needed. Work with all involved, including teachers, doctors, and therapists. Stay consistent so your child isn’t confused by so many changes.
And finally, think outside the box when it comes to disciplining your autistic child. What may typically work for other kids may not always work for yours.
As frustrating as your child’s behavior may be, a lot of it can be prevented simply by seeing things from his perspective. In my PDF, The Power of Empathy, you’ll learn how empathy is truly the secret key that makes a huge difference in how we interact with our kids.
Imagine transforming your relationship with your child, using just the lessons you’ll learn right here. Join my newsletter and download your PDF below—at no cost to you. Trust me, you won’t want to pass this up:
Kori Tomelden is a work-at-home mom of three (including one on the autism spectrum), and through her business, seeks to encourage, nurture, empower, and support moms of special needs children. She enjoys watching Jeopardy, Chopped, spending time with her family, singing, and crocheting. When she is given the opportunity to serve others, Kori is truly at her best.
Get more tips:
- Children’s Books about Acceptance — Of Others and Yourself
- We’ve Got Discipline All Wrong
- 7 Positive Parenting Skills All Moms Need to Have
- Toddler Running Away in Public? 6 Things You Need to Do
- 5 Useful Tools to Teach Impulse Control for Kids
Tell me in the comments: What are your biggest struggles on how to discipline a child with autism?
The Power of Empathy
Tired of losing your cool (especially when the kids don't listen) or when the frustration seems to come out of nowhere?
Learn just how effective showing your child empathy can be, and how it can easily melt her defenses and bring you closer together.
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