7 tips for disciplining children with autism

Hello again,

Just a quick note. In case some of you do not know… if you ever have any questions, comments or opinions that you’d like to ask me or share with our other readers, you can leave them at the bottom of the message (you’ll need to click through to the full article first!).

Recently some of you have asked for my opinions on the subject of disciplining children with autism.

This topic is very detailed and I handle this area of development very individually with each of my clients. As you can imagine there are numerous ways of dealing with situations depending upon the age, severity level and personality of the child, etc.

I think the best way of us getting this conversation started is to take a look at an email that I received requesting some advice…

Hi Monique! it is good to have you back! I am Leo’s grandma.

My relationship with Leo has developed so that he is more accepting of me, probably because I do try to play with him. But I am worried about how he should be disciplined. He gets out of control and seems to show jealousy when my daughter and I talk.

Recently his family moved. I was helping unpack. Leo was very excited. He kept running at me and hitting me hard on my back. Eventually I could not cope with the pain. I had tried catching him and saying ’no’ but this time I caught his hand and said ‘You must not hurt grandma or I will have to smack you’, I had warned him already. I gave him one smack on his hand, not hard. He stopped and just looked at me as I said ‘Now, no more running and hitting grandma.’ After that he did stop.

I thought I might have damaged our relationship but the next time I baby sat him and his sister he was perfect, then when his parents came home he got out of bed and ran madly out of control around the house staring at us as if daring us to stop him. I ignored him, but that did not help. Leo is now six and I am worried that he will become too big and strong for my tiny daughter to handle. Can you help please?”

If you have had similar experiences with your child, I can fully understand your concerns. It’s very important to address inappropriate behaviours such as hitting because they don’t just go away.

In Leo’s case it’s difficult for me to give specific advice because I have not seen him for therapy in some time. But using his case as an example, I’ll give you some more general ideas to think about that I’m sure could be relevant for many of you.

1. Understand why is the behaviour occurring

Remember that Leo is trying to communicate something. Maybe he wants to let his Grandma know something that he is not yet capable of telling her, like…

“I didn’t want to move house”
“I love the new house and I feel so excited about it that I can’t control my emotions”
“I haven’t had a lot of mummy time lately and I don’t like it when you come over and talk to her”
“Please don’t talk, I want you to play with me instead”

2. Work on more appropriate ways of communicating
Leo is expressing his communication inappropriately. So we need to help him learn how to articulate things in a more advanced way. When I used to work with Leo he responded very well to me drawing what he was thinking and feeling, to help him describe what was happening. This helped him realise that I was on his side trying to work out what is going on for him and helping him learn a different way of handling situations the next time they arose. I also know that Leo is a very visual leaner and this strength should continue to be used in his intervention.

3. Be Careful with the language you use
When talking to Leo, the conversation needs to focus on what we want him to do rather than what we don’t want him to do. The language we use must be pitched at the right level for him to understand. Again, drawings could be used to explain more complex situations that require higher level comprehension (eg: perspective sharing).

A note for Leo’s Grandma – please refer back to your DVD 7 – Learn Part 2 to refresh on these ideas!

4. Helping him move on
Often children with autism can ‘perseverate’ or get stuck on a thought (eg: hitting) and find it difficult to ‘move on’. Leo may need help getting started with another activity that he finds motivating. Remember though that the new activity needs to be equally or more motivating than the ‘hitting’ for this to work effectively.

5. Be consistent
Autistic kids often want clear structure and boundaries. So it’s very important that whenever a family member asks Leo to do something that they all expect him to follow through in the same way and similarly that any consequences (whatever they might be) are carried out in a consistent manner. This is crucial!

6. Acknowledge and deal with his emotions
When Leo experiences more challenging emotions like sadness, frustration, anger and fear it is very important that his family acknowledge these emotions and help to calm him down, because otherwise the next little incident could trigger an even bigger reaction.

7. Calm first… teach second
Whilst Leo is in ‘emotional mode’, family members should not try to teach Leo any lessons because his brain simply is not in ‘thinking mode’. Wait until he calms down before you talk through the situation when he will be in a much better space to learn.

There are MANY more ideas that I could discuss but I’m very aware that this message is getting very long! Each of these tips could be a whole page. So if anyone would like some more information on any of these suggestions please let me know and I can devote some more time to it in one of my future messages.