Did you know discipline isn’t the same as punishment? Punishment shames, while discipline empathizes and teaches. Disciplining an autistic child poses challenges many parents are not equipped to handle, but here are some tips to doing so.
5 Tips to discipline autistic children
Discipline teaches appropriate behavior. But how do you teach this when your default communication methods are non-autistic and verbal?
It’s important to note that discipline and punishment are not the same.
- Punishment makes the child suffer for breaking the rules. Next time, the child will seek to break the rules without getting caught. Children grow up fearing the punishers and the punishments, hiding their most vulnerable sides (crying, meltdowns, etc.) because they don’t feel safe.
- Discipline teaches the child how to make better choices and distinguish right from wrong.
1. Understand attachment theory and attention needs
In order to feel safe, children need to develop a healthy, secure attachment with their caregivers. When it comes to attention, a child with a secure attachment:
- Receives enough positive attention
- Has their needs met
- Is emotionally validated
Children who do not receive enough positive interaction with their caregivers will settle for negative attention. This is because negative attention is still attention, and they are feeling attention-deprived.
2. Teach natural consequences
You’re going to the park, and your autistic, grade school child insists they don’t want to take water, no matter what cup it’s in. At the park, they throw a fit because you didn’t bring their water. That’s a natural consequence.
As a parent, you’re responsible for helping them work the problem, not solve it. Every problem is a puzzle, and puzzles can be worked together. No one has to go it alone, but it’s not your puzzle.
Teaching natural consequences helps teach boundaries and problem-solving. Your child will learn their toys are prone to being taken by younger siblings when left out. Meltdowns, tantrums and mere whining episodes will run rampant in the beginning. Consistency is key here.
Be sure to teach that good behavior has consequences as well. Don’t aim to offer rewards for all good behavior, as this can teach entitlement. Something as small as passing them their drink when they show kindness is a natural, positive consequence.
3. Draw a line between behavior and being a good kid & person
Not everyone who engages in good/bad behavior is a good/bad person.
There are good people who behave badly, and bad people who do a lot of good. Abusers often behave well before others, but are not good people beneath the surface.
Encouraging the line between good behavior versus having a “bad kid” will help increase their self-esteem instead of damaging it.
Your autistic child isn’t bad; they’re behaving badly. Note that talking back is not inherently bad behavior, but a typical developmental milestone. Children who speak up against authority grow into adults who fight for higher salaries and land more supervisory roles than kids who didn’t feel safe to do so.
One way to stand against mean statements they say to you is to ask, “Would I talk to you that way?” If they say no, ask, “Then why are you talking to me like that?” If they say yes, it’s a time to reflect on your own behavior.
You teach your children how to behave by embodying that behavior. Autistic children mimic use patterns to understand human behavior. In other words, your autistic children will often be a direct reflection of your behavior.
4. Don’t ground them from their special interests
I remember my CD player being taken away, but not the reason why. I was my most depressed that week, and I couldn’t even stim. I needed music to dance to my favorite Play songs.
Special interests are a need for autistic people. They help us self-regulate and connect with the world around us. They’re not just “hobbies”. They’re our entire world; they give us meaning and motivate us to keep going.
What’s something that keeps you alive? What if it was taken from you?
Focus on consequences they might face in adulthood. If you (or they) bought tickets to a concert and it’s a done deal, that’s like requesting and being granted time off from work.
But sometimes things happen. Sometimes, work comes back and says that they actually need you, and you don’t get that time off. Some employees will take the time off anyway, but others won’t. You’re the parent, so you decide what works best for you.
Grounding an autistic child from a phone when that’s how they get home (map) and keep in touch with you doesn’t work as well as creating a phones-on-the-charger curfew or cutting back on screen time.
Adapt to your child’s motivations without compromising their needs. Autistic children need their special interests (but that doesn’t mean buying them a hundred Nerf guns).
5. Go easy on yourself
If you’re reading this post, and any other post I’ve written, you’re probably a first-generation gentle parent (or trying to be). Breaking the cycle is hard. Escaping the habit of yelling at your autistic child, when you learned to do so, is one of the hardest things. You are literally rewiring your neurons.
Focus less on what the effects of right now will look like when they are older. Focus more on connecting with them right now, in the moment. The tiny moments add up.
This isn’t permission to yell your children into submission. It’s mercy for the parents who go to bed at night ashamed for yelling at their child when they decided the night before they would have more patience.
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