Why Children with Autism Deserve Rules and Discipline

Everyone Needs Structure in Their Lives

tantrum. Thomas Northcut

It's an all-too-common scenario.  A child with autism does something for which any other child would receive a timeout -- hits another child, throws food on the floor, screams rather than using a more acceptable means of communication.  And, instead of a consequence, the child with autism gets a "pass," along with a comment such as "that's ok, I understand," or "well, he did his best."

There's no doubt that the adults who give a pass to bad behavior in autistic children are doing so out of the kindness of their hearts.

  They may believe that the child is incapable of better behavior.  They may believe that consequences will cause some sort of emotional damage.  They may believe that the child with autism will lash out if confronted with disapproval.

Whatever their reasons, however, adults who choose not to offer structure and discipline to children with autism are doing those child a disservice.

If there is one thing that children -- with or without autism -- absolutely need to thrive, it's structure and discipline.  If there is one thing that frightens and overwhelms a child, it is a lack of adult involvement in creating a safe, structured, and orderly world.

Yes, it's easier to avoid disciplining a child with autism.  And it's tempting to assume that a child with autism is incapable of understanding or following rules.  In the vast majority of cases, however, autistic children are capable of understanding and complying with basic rules of conduct.

  Those rules may need to be modified or bent, depending upon the circumstances.  But a child who is raised or educated without the benefit of structure and discipline is almost certain to suffer the consequences as he or she grows up and finds it impossible to integrate into the community or the workplace.

Let's take a deeper look at discipline and autism by addressing some myths.

Myth One: A Child Who Cannot Talk (Or Talks Oddly) Cannot Understand

We are accustomed to the idea that verbal communication is a sign of intelligence. But a child who has a terrific vocabulary is not necessarily any more capable of good behavior than a child with a limited vocabulary.  And even a child with no words may be quite capable of understanding and complying with behavioral expectations, assuming that child can communicate via sign, communication board, PECS cards, or other means.

You may need to modify your style of communication to meet the needs of a child with limited or no verbal skills.  For example, you may need to keep your words simple ("no hitting," as opposed to "now Johnny, you know that we don't hit in this classroom"), and you may need to use the child's preferred means of communication.  For most adults, modifications such as these should be easy to accomplish.

Myth Two: Children with Autism Never Misbehave Without a Good Reason

It is certainly true that many children with autism respond strongly to sensory input, and may show their discomfort through what appear to be bad behaviors.

  And it's also true that children with autism are more liable than typical children to suffer from bullying which may not be obvious to the adult in the room.  So yes, sometimes "behaviors" are the result of problems which can and should be addressed.

Nevertheless, children with autism are children. They get angry and hit.  They throw things that shouldn't be thrown.  They put their hands in their food, or dump their food on the floor.  And just like other children, children with autism need to learn (1) those behavior are not acceptable and (2) there are alternative ways to communicate your feelings and needs. 

Myth Three: It's Unfair to Discipline a Child with Special Needs

Of course it is unfair to discipline a child for something he cannot avoid.  So, for example, scolding a child with autism for "stimming" or making noise may well be unreasonable.  These are behaviors that are part and parcel of being autistic. 

It is, however, not only fair but necessary to make it clear to any child that intentional misbehavior is unacceptable.  In fact, allowing intentional misbehavior because a child is "special" can create a whole raft of new problems and issues.

Myth Four: Children with Autism Don't Understand Consequences

It is critical to design consequences so that they fit the child and the situation. It may be very tough for a child with autism to understand or comply with a "timeout," but that same child may be quite capable of understanding and complying with time away from video games. "Grounding" may not be a meaningful consequence for a child who prefers time alone, whereas a short break from television may quickly get the point across.

Obviously (I hope!) corporal punishment or incarceration in a closet or cupboard are the wrong choice for any child.

Bottom line, every child deserves the respect and support represented by clear structure, consistent rules, and discipline. These tools, along with some flexibility, patience, and imagination, can help a child with autism to understand his world and feel safe and confident as he grows up.

Continue Reading