Disciplining Aspergers (high functioning autistic) kids and teens can present some unique challenges unfamiliar to moms and dads of neurotypical kids. “Misbehavior” is often not misbehavior at all – rather it is a symptom of the youngster’s diagnosis.
So how does a parent know when - and how - to discipline the Aspergers child? Here are some tips to help:
1. Employ “attachment parenting” skills. An Aspergers youngster can bring out the best and the worst in a family. By practicing attachment parenting and getting connected, the whole family can develop a “sixth sense” about the Aspergers child, a quality of caring that no book or counselor will be able to give you. With all children, attachment parenting is highly desirable, but with an Aspergers youngster, it's necessary and a matter of survival.
2. Avoid the use of negative labels, medical terms, or psychological jargon when talking to your Aspergers youngster about his behavior. Target the behavior – not the youngster.
3. Be consistent. If you threaten without following through, your Aspie will learn to disrespect and ignore you. You must follow through with consequences swiftly, and EVERY TIME the rule is broken. This way, your youngster can predict his consequences and make better behavior choices. When the consequences are inconsistent, changing, and infrequent, chaos will rule!
4. Beware of “over-attachment syndrome.” It is very easy for your whole life to revolve around your special style of parenting, to the extent that it becomes an end in itself. This is a “lose-lose” situation. You lose the joy of parenting, and you lose your ability to be flexible. Eventually, you will either burn out – or you will break.
5. Change your standards. Before a child is even born, moms and dads imagine what the youngster's life will be like (e.g., piano lessons, baseball stardom, graduating from college, etc.). Even with a typical youngster, you have to reconcile these dreams with reality as your youngster grows up. With an Aspergers youngster, this is a bigger task. You learn to live in the present. The milestones of the youngster's life are less defined and the future less predictable—though your youngster may surprise you! In the meantime, set your standards for your Aspie at an appropriate level.
6. Create simple house rules and discuss them together. Have a family meeting where "family rules" are created. Simplify them according to the cognitive ability of your Aspie (e.g., a rule like "no yelling or screaming when you're inside the house" could be simplified to "indoor voice"). Don't overwhelm your youngster with too many rules at first. Find ten that would cover the most problem behaviors. Later you can build from there.
7. Different doesn't mean fragile. While it is true you have to change your expectations of an Aspergers youngster, you don't have to lower your standards of discipline! It's tempting to get lax and let Aspergers kids get by with behaviors you wouldn't tolerate in other kids. He needs to know, early on, what behavior you expect. Many moms and dads wait too long to start behavior training. It's much harder to redirect an eighty pound youngster than a thirty pounder. Like all kids, this youngster must be taught to adjust to family routines, to obey, and to manage himself.
8. Different doesn't mean inferior. In a kid's logic, being different equates with being inferior. This feeling may be more of a problem for siblings and other children than for the developmentally-delayed youngster, at least in the early years. Most kids measure their self-worth by how they believe others perceive them. Be sure the youngster's siblings don't fall into this "different equals less" trap. This is why the term "special needs" is not only socially correct, but it's a positive term, not a value judgment. In reality, all kids could wear this label.
9. Don't compare. Your youngster is special. Comparing your youngster to others of the same age is not fair. Quit focusing on what your child is missing, and instead, started enjoying him for himself. Get rid of your tendency to focus on his “problem” – he is not a project, rather he is a person.
10. Give negative reinforcement for bad behaviors. Some say it's outdated, but the good old "timeout" works wonders for younger Aspies. Designate a chair or place in your house where the youngster must sit and think about his behavior. He should not have access to toys or television. Keep him isolated and apart from the action of the house, but close enough for you to observe him. Don’t talk to him except to say he must sit in “think time” for 5 minutes (or longer for older Aspies). If he leaves the seat, put him back and increase his time. "Now it's ten minutes." Use a timer that shows minutes counting down as he sits in the chair. If he yells or misbehaves in time out, start the timer over again. He must sit quietly in the chair for the allotted time. Be firm.
11. Give positive reinforcement for good behaviors. This is a step in discipline that is often overlooked, and yet can be the most effective. When your youngster hangs up his coat instead of throwing it on the floor, he should be praised. "That makes me happy when you hang up your coat! Good Job!" Special-needs kids often do well with charts, so consider giving a star when your youngster behaves well. Five stars could earn extra time playing his favorite video game.
12. Give your youngster choices. Initially, you may have to guide him into making a choice, but just the ability to make a choice helps the youngster feel important. Present the choices in your youngster's language, which may mean using pictures, pointing, and reinforcing your verbal instructions (which may not be fully understood) with visual ones. The more you use this exercise, the more you will learn about your youngster's abilities, preferences, and receptive language skills at each stage of development.
13. Reset your anger buttons. Your Aspergers youngster will frequently do some things that exasperate you. If you get angry each time there is a “challenge,” you may find yourself in a perpetual state of madness.
14. Help your youngster build a sense of responsibility. There is a natural tendency to want to rush in and do things for a developmentally-delayed youngster. For these kids, the principle of "teach them how to fish rather than give them a fish" applies doubly. The sense of accomplishment that accompanies being given responsibility gives the youngster a sense of value and raises his self-worth.
15. Know your youngster's motivators. What does he love most? Candy? Favorite books? Video games? Movies? What are his interests? These are the privileges your youngster will earn with appropriate behaviors, and will lose with inappropriate behaviors.
16. Provide structure. Aspergers kids need developmentally- appropriate structure, but it requires sensitivity on your part to figure out what is needed when. Watch your Aspie, not the calendar. Try to get inside his head.
17. Teach “frustration tolerance.” Help your youngster be frustrated and find ways to deal with it. You’re not going to be able to create a world in which your child is never angry, disappointed or frustrated. View these uncomfortable emotions as muscles, and if your child doesn't learn to flex them in socially appropriate ways, they don't develop. Aspergers children and teens really do need to learn how to be angry effectively - and how to be frustrated or disappointed effectively.
18. View behaviors as “signals of needs.” Everything kids do tells you something about what they need. This principle is particularly true with Aspergers kids.
19. Watch out for parental guilt. Moms and dads with Aspergers children often feel guilty. Many feel their youngster is getting a raw deal in the world, and they want to make it better. That's a very universal impulse.
20. Understand the difference between “accommodations” and “allowances.” Accommodations are things we do to help kids be capable …things we can put in place so that the playing field for the youngster is roughly equivalent to the playing field for a youngster without special needs. Allowances, on the other hand, are things like, "We need to let him take toys because he doesn't know how to ask for a turn yet." Allowances aren't helpful. Children with special needs have a right to struggle. That can be counter-intuitive since they're already struggling, but when we make things too easy for them, we are not helping them develop the belief about themselves that they are capable and they can learn to solve problems.
Disciplining a youngster who is "differently-abled" is likely to bring out the best and the worst in a mother or father. Caring grown-ups try to help a youngster make up for what's missing by increasing their love and attention, yet Aspergers kids trigger special frustrations in us. Be prepared to run out of patience.
Most kids go through predictable stages of development. You know about when to expect what behavior and how long it will last. You know that two-year-old temper tantrums will diminish once the youngster learns to speak. Knowing you don't have to weather this undesirable behavior indefinitely helps you cope. With the developmentally-disabled youngster, stages seem to go on forever, as do the frustrations in both parent and child.
Parenting an Aspergers youngster is a tough job. The ups and downs and joys and sorrows are magnified. You rejoice at each accomplishment, you worry about each new challenge. Welcome to the world of Aspergers :)
Resources for Parents: