Discipline is about helping children learn how to behave appropriately. You can use a range of discipline strategies to teach your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) the basics of good behaviour.
Discipline is helping your child learn how to behave – as well as how not to behave. It works best when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child.
Discipline and discipline strategies are positive. They’re built on talking and listening. They guide all children towards:
knowing what behaviour is appropriate – whether it’s at home, a friend’s house, child care, preschool or school
managing their own behaviour and developing important skills like the ability to get along well with others, now and as they get older
learning to understand, manage and express their feelings.
I blamed myself for my son’s inappropriate behaviour in public. But my son’s early intervention psychologist helped me understand that the way he was acting was sometimes related to the difficulties his ASD causes, not to me being an inadequate parent. I also learned that many of the techniques I already knew would be useful. I felt empowered again.
– Mother of three children, including a son with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Discipline strategies for children with autism spectrum disorder
Like all children, children with ASD benefit from:
praise and rewards for appropriate behaviour
clear rules about behaviour
consequences for inappropriate behaviour
These discipline strategies are explained below, along with some ways that you can change them to suit the development and understanding of your child with ASD.
Praise is when you tell your child what you like about his behaviour. When your child gets praise for behaving well, he’s likely to want to keep behaving well.
Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you like. It’s best for encouraging good behaviour – for example, ‘Thank you for staying calm when you didn’t win the game’.
Many children with ASD enjoy praise and want to behave well again to get praise. But some children with ASD don’t respond to praise. If your child tends to withdraw from other people she might not be motivated to do things to please others. Or if your child doesn’t have much language she might not understand the positive words you’re using.
You can help your child with ASD learn to respond to praise. At first you might need to add something to help your child link positive words with the things he likes doing. This could be something to play with or an activity. After a while, your child might eventually enjoy the praise on its own.
Rules are positive statements that let children know how they’re expected to behave and what the limits are in your family.
The rule might be that your child can’t play in the morning until she’s ready for school – for example, ‘First get ready, then have playtime’. You could use a visual support like a timer to show your child how long there is until you need to leave for school. When your child has finished getting ready she can play for the time left on the timer. If the timer has finished, there’s no time to play.
A consequence is something that happens after your child behaves in a particular way. Consequences can be positive or negative.
Consequences are a good way to back up rules – that is, when your child breaks a rule, you give him a consequence. When you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect.
This means it’s good to plan consequences if you can. For example, if your child is fighting over a toy, you put the toy away for 10 minutes, or if your child swears she might lose TV time.
When you’re planning consequences, it’s best not to stop or reduce the time your child with ASD spends on his area of intense interest. Your child probably finds his interest calming, so stopping him from doing it could lead to more misbehaviour.
If your child doesn’t have many interests or you can’t think of things she’d miss if you took them away as a consequence, it’s best to use praise and rewards to change how your child behaves.
It’s best to use more positive consequences for good behaviour than negative consequences for bad behaviour. Praising your child or giving positive consequences for good behaviour six times for every negative consequence is a good ratio.
Time-out can be a useful consequence if your child has hurt someone else, or destroyed something. It can give your child a chance to calm down away from the situation.
Time-out involves taking your child away from interesting activities and not giving him attention for a short period of time.
Time-out might not work if your child tends to be withdrawn, or has a lot of self-stimulatory behaviours. Time-out could end up being a reward rather than a negative consequence if it gives her time alone or time to stim.
Instead, it might be better to give your child a positive consequence when he’s behaving well.
Our articles on managing challenging behaviour in children with ASD and encouraging cooperative behaviour in children with ASD have more tips and strategies to help your child learn good behaviour.
Discipline doesn’t always – or even often – mean punishment. Punishment is giving your child a negative consequence when she breaks a rule or misbehaves. It’s a way of letting your child know that her behaviour isn’t acceptable.
For example, your child might use a toy in a dangerous way, like throwing it. The punishment might be that you take away the toy for a set amount of time. It can help to show your child with a visual timer how long the punishment will last.
Physical punishment – for example, smacking – doesn’t teach children how to behave. And it can hurt your child.
Punishment and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Sometimes a child with ASD might seem like he’s behaving inappropriately. But actually he doesn’t have the skills to handle the situation.
For example, your child doesn’t say hello to someone. She isn’t being rude on purpose – she might not know she should say hello. She might start hitting something because a particular noise is upsetting her. Or she might smear poo on the wall because she likes the warmth and texture of it, not because she wants to upset you or do the wrong thing.
Before you punish a child with ASD in situations like this, it’s worth thinking about whether:
your child has been taught a better way to deal with the situation and reminded to use it
you’ve removed the things that trigger your child’s unacceptable behaviour.