Discipline Strategies for Children with Autism

Here's how to discipline a child with autism.
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When a child misbehaves, whether it’s throwing a temper tantrum, hurting another kid or ignoring instructions, he would usually get some sort of punishment. But, when a child is on the autism spectrum, he likely needs a different approach to discipline.

It can be harder to implement traditional discipline techniques when dealing with a child with autism. Depending on where he falls on the spectrum, he might struggle to understand the consequences of his actions.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use any discipline at all. Instead, gentler and consistent strategies may be the key to teaching him how to manage his behavior.

Educate Yourself About Your Child’s Needs

It’s important to have a good understanding of your child’s diagnosis. The symptoms of autism can vary greatly. A clear understanding of your child’s needs and abilities will help ensure you’re creating realistic expectations.

A child with autism may not be able to control certain behaviors. Hand flapping, for example, is a self-stimulating behavior that often helps people with autism regulate their emotions. It can be addressed through applied behavior analysis or occupational therapy, but you shouldn’t place your child in time-out because his hand-flapping disrupts an activity.

Always Put Safety First

When necessary, remove your child from the situation--particularly if it’s unsafe (emotionally or physically) for her or another little one.

However, take note of how your child responds when you take her out of the situation. If she immediately calms down and starts behaving, she might associate misbehaving with being able to leave a situation she doesn’t like.

Use Positive Discipline

Children with autism respond better to discipline techniques that focus on the positive.

Try a visual tool that helps your child associate positive behavior with earning something he wants, such as the classic sticker chart.

Pick out stickers of your child’s favorite character, whether it’s Mickey Mouse or an action hero, and give him one sticker for each day that he behaves well (you can also assign stickers to chores or other actions). When he reaches a certain number of stickers, he earns the item he wants. When your child acts in a positive manner, be sure to give him a lot of praise.

If he starts acting out, direct him to what you prefer him to do rather than what he shouldn’t do. For example, if he’s pulling the dog’s tail, don’t say “Stop hurting the dog,” but rather “Let go of the dog’s tail.”

Teach Self-Calming Techniques

All children have meltdowns, but it can be harder to calm a child with autism. Teach her self-calming techniques that can be implemented in these situations (this might work better with an older child than a younger one who can’t quite control her emotions yet).

Teach her to breathe in and out through the nose slowly, close her eyes and imagine something pleasant, like her kitty or her favorite park, and, if you or another trusted adult is around, to hug the adult until the child has settled.

Be Consistent

Staying consistent in discipline techniques is important for all kids, special needs or not. However, those who have trouble learning, such as those with autism, respond positively to structured discipline. It might be a long road to teach your child what to expect, but they will do much better when they can predict the outcome of a situation.

If you have other children who are not on the autism spectrum, they might not understand why they get disciplined differently than their brother or sister. Consistently explain to the child that their sibling isn’t getting a free pass on punishment. But do acknowledge that you’re treating him differently but fairly because they’re different people.

Seek Professional Help

It’s not easy to raise a child with autism (or any child, for that matter!) but their behavior can be effectively managed with positive, gentle techniques. Avoid physical discipline, as it teaches the child that hitting is an appropriate response to a negative situation. Instead, praise your child, help him calm down and redirect him to better situations to keep him on the right behavioral path.

Seek professional help whenever possible. There are many different types of therapy and a variety of services available. Look for people with expertise in helping children with autism and learn as much as you can about the strategies that will support your child’s development.

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