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.