Discipline and Autism

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How to discipline, and not discipline, your children, is a topic that every parent has had to think about and form an opinion on. It’s been a very public topic throughout my adult years – with ongoing debates about laws around smacking, new books coming out in an endless stream, and quite a few TV series dedicated to the topic. As parents-to-be we had discussed how we wanted to discipline our children well in advance: We were going to be a united front to our child, we were going to be consistent, we were not going to use smacking (this was back when it wasn’t essentially illegal). I’d read parenting books and websites – I was all ready for that aspect of my parenting adventure…

So let’s take a classic piece of naughty behaviour from my son. Take one toy car. It gets accidentally knocked off a table (that pesky gravity thing – for a long time I found myself getting angry at gravity for what it did to my son!). Now begins the meltdown. That’s naughty right? He’s clearly overreacting to something he wanted his way, and is using inappropriate behaviours of screaming and violence to property and people at this point. Goodies, time to apply all those wonderful discipline ideas that all those other parents and parenting shows have been going on about for so long!

First you make eye contact.. opps, that’s just making things worse. OK, OK, how about I just try to tell him that his behaviour is not acceptable. But he’s screaming and hitting – even if I could get close to him, he can’t hear a word I’m saying. Find a way to get a word in edge-wise, somehow, at some point. Great, he can’t understand my words anyway – there’s that damn autism again. Righto, I’ll just put him somewhere safe until he calms down then. Where is safe for a child who scratches his skin so hard when he’s irritated that he makes himself bleed..? Hope like crazy he won’t do too much damage to himself, stick him in his bedroom, now wait. And wait. Watch the minutes turn into half an hour, into an hour… So this isn’t working either, and I’m worried he’s hurting himself too much, he sounds like he’s going to vomit with the force of his tantrum, can’t take it anymore, mummy-mode kicks in. Get my boy our of his room, try to comfort him. But nothing I do or say is working. I can offer him all his favourite things, I can fix whatever went wrong, none of it registers. The screaming, the crying, will continue until maybe he falls asleep with exhaustion… but even then he tends to wake up and go straight into the tears and screaming again..

How fair is it to punish behaviour which is set off by sensory issues? It is not sensible to punish a child for something completely out of his control. So how do you figure out the difference between behaviours that represent intended naughtiness, versus what is a result of his autism? And then what to do about it either way, since words and actions don’t mean the same thing to him as they would to a neurotypical (“non-autistic”) child.

We survived the only way we could early on, before we had the diagnosis and the help we desperately needed. And that was by avoiding whatever set him off by creating a predictable environment for him. In doing so we created a trap for ourselves – unable to leave the home, unable to have visitors, and living in constant anxiety of anyone or anything unexpected setting off the next endless meltdown.

With help and information, we were eventually able to understand how to communicate with him effectively, and how to pick our battles with him. It’s a constant mode of learning, and responding to him as he advances, and picking up on the real reasons behind seemingly irrational behaviours so our responses are correct for the situation at hand.

Once you realise that autistic children crave predictability, and start to realise that they love and need rules in pretty much every area of their lives, it’s a lot easier to understand how to deal with them and importantly, you come to understand something that is otherwise counterintuitive about these children: Their behaviour and meltdowns are worse than neurotypical children, but they are much less “naughty” than neurotypical children are too. They can have cheeky streaks, they like to have fun, but if there is a rule in place and they know the rule, they don’t want to break it. It gives their lives the predictability they crave, in a world which seems out of control. As parents, it is up to us to help him control that world, and to teach him how to cope with it when the world gets unpredictable again, as it always will.

So next time you see a child tantruming, be careful before you jump on your high-horse and start offering out your latest and greatest discipline advice. Or give out that holier-than-thou stare. Offer help if you can, and if you can’t, maybe give a kind sympathetic smile, and be glad it’s not you in that position. For some of us discipline isn’t as simple as a chapter in a parenting book.


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12 Responses to Discipline and Autism

  1. Jess says:

    ahh my saviour again, my son has just started hitting and laying into his sister, but yet explaining to him its not good to do results in screaming and tears and a complete meltdown. This follows after him laughing at me trying to tell him off for hitting. I was starting to wonder how on earth do i punish the bad behaviour, and how do i work out the one thing his sister is doing to make him “snap”. It doesnt take alot for him to snap, she probably isnt even aware what his trigger is. This blog post has given me things to think about 🙂 Thank you 🙂

    • I’ll do some more specific blog posts about discipline and “behaviour modification” in the future – about what worked for us, and what didn’t. What you’re talking about here is so common – they really struggle to read other people’s facial expressions (anger, fear, sadness) which makes things so much harder too, and might be part of what is going on there. I’m also planning to do a post with links to games which help teach autistic children how to read emotions, so that might help aswell. What looks like naughty behaviour from an autistic child is often fearful anxiety, but as parents we can’t just stand back and let them hurt people and property as a way to deal with that anxiety, we need to find other ways for them to deal with those situations when they arise (which I’m also planning to do a post on at some point!). I hope some of the posts to come, help you out a little. Just remember, you are not alone!

  2. Jess says:

    Thank you so much! Is there anything i can use to explain to my daughter about her brother? She is 4.

  3. Pam Mace says:

    Thank you so much for this. You could have been describing my 3yr old grandson. We’re on the way to having him assessed for a spectrum disorder and are positive he has sensory processing issues. He is so precious, we love him so much, and he is hard work!

  4. It took years for me to figure out the rule/predictability thing. You have to mean business!

    If, then works pretty well, too. If you do this, this is gonna happen. It can be positive or negative, but it always has to be the same.

    Well, and I have too much of my onery father’s blood. I WILL get in Ben’s face if he in any way attempts to intimidate me with his behavior, which he has over the years. It’s like, “that stuff ain’t gonna work with me, buddy.”, and I mean it. Autism has never been an excuse, we are all human. And parents are due respect. (I also try very hard to give respect.) I had wonderful parents and it took me years to figure out just how easy they made it look was quite deceptive. But the respect they gave us made us want to try harder to please them. And we laughed, A LOT! (Humor saves face. Good advice I got from a behaviorist.)

    When he was little, nothing seemed to work. I think some parents are just overwhelmed, as well as the kids. Both are in a world they don’t seem to understand.

    I’m not sure that I was just lucky, though, because Ben was so gentle as a child. I only remember him biting himself once…that’s the side of autism I wouldn’t know how to deal with, the self-harm.

    What I’m trying to say is I’m not sure it was my discipline as much as Ben just really is mildly afflicted.

    I wrote a chapter on discipline that was accepted into the “Elephant in the Playroom” anthology by parents of kids with special needs. It’s title was something like “cost benefit analysis”. Somehow, we have to have our kids decide that it’s just not worth it to be naughty. The rod of discipline is equated with the staff the sheperd uses to guide his sheep in the right direction, not to beat them.

    OKAY, then. I ‘ve totally emptied my mind on this subject, but it is a very important one.

  5. Perhaps THE most important one as parents.

    • Great comment.

      The question of self-harm is such a complex one, that definitely impacts on issues of discipline. There have been time when I’ve tried to discipline my son to stop him hurting himself, but that would often lead to him hurting himself more or differently as an (uncontrollable it seemed) anxiety response. It does complicate the already complicated issue of discipling a child who struggles with even the most basic communication. Again, you’ve made me think of a new post I’d like to do! (If only there were enough hours in a day 🙂 )

      • If the answer can be found…it would be profound what it would do. I think self harm is the single most painful thing for parents.

        Carly, of Carly’s voice, a severely autistic teenager who after years of being thought retarded started using typing as a means of expression (although there is some question whether she is “kosher” because she doesn’t perform on command…I dunno, seems Ben never did ANYTHING on command…) says it feels like the pressure will make her pop. Like a pop can all shook up, the banging/biting feels like relief. It is soothing, actually.

        At a time when I was deeply depressed, I wanted to cut my wrists because it would relieve the pressure. It felt like my blood was too thick, and destroying me. (It was only a passing thought, but on rememberence it made me have a little empathy for “cutters”.) It’s not about punishing others, although it feels that way, it’s a way of releasing the over-bearing pressure. The pressure doesn’t feel emotional, it feels almost physical. It takes enormous self love to overcome it, from the example of a woman who was bi-polar and bent on self destruction until she had a “road to Damascus” encounter and was struck with overwhelming self-love. She went on to become a therapist for treating those like her, instead of committing suicide.

        Between gay and labelled kids, the greatest share of suicides occur in the young who are a part of one group or the other. I still worry about Ben, he has worn me down and I can’t always reach him. I just keep plugging, hoping he sees a light inside himself. He is 18 now. Many things have changed, but his reaction to unease is sometimes self destructive.

        I read an interesting article the other day, about anxious people being so because they couldn’t figure out what was coming next, what was expected of them, how to react. It was their slowness, their inability to respond on their feet, as most people do, that caused them such pain. Not that they were hyper-responsive, but that their hyporesponsive reaction to others that caused them to avoid social situations, to avoid the repeated pain of not measuring up.

        In these times of adult autistic expression, I do wish they could tell us the “why” of self harm.

  6. Sarah says:

    I’m really struggling with my son, he’s 12 and profoundly autistic, no speech, still in nappies. He’s violent behaviour towards himself and others is escalating. He is at an all age school (up till 19) specifically for ASD children, and I have just been told they can’t cope with him and want him to leave. I am at my wits end with worry about what will happen to him, if they can’t cope with him, who will, where will he go, what will happen to him. Everywhere I look for advice on autism and our problems, it’s always about children who are more higher functioning, these children like my son are the forgotten ones and that is what I fear, he is too autistic to even be considered autistic, he’s something else – even that label doesn’t fit him. The school were my only support system, family have dwindled away, the future is looking pretty grim right now. What happens to the children like my son, why is this never addressed??

    • Sarah, my heart goes out to you, there are no easy answers, but there is a consideration that came to mind when I read your description of the behaviour worsening. Have you considered that your son might have sub-clinical seziures; it happens to about 1 in 4 autistic children when they hit puberty and makes their behaviour worse, might be worth looking into. Here’s a link to where I got that information: “Autism, Puberty and the Possibility of Seziures” http://www.autism.com/ind_puberty_seizures.asp

    • Ruthie says:

      Sarah have you tried risperdal for your child? I did not want to give my daughter any drugs, but we did not know what to do. A doctor who we went to take her to check for sleep apnea, recommended it, he had to go outside to meet her in the vechicle because she would not go in and then as he walked out he witnessed a total melt down in the car. It is not a complete cure but it has helped. I started her on a very low dose, she is 19 now and she started having thyroid problems. Her behavior has become out of control so we had to increase it 3 days ago and today was the best day she has had in months. Blessings to you and your son.

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