Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Effective Discipline for "Sensitive" Children on the Autism Spectrum

Many children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have been known to “meltdown” immediately after being reprimanded or disciplined by parents. Even the mildest form of correction (e.g., being told to stop banging a toy on the furniture) can be very upsetting to these “special needs” children.

A youngster who cries easily, shows excessive responses to appropriate consequences and general discipline, or breaks downs over minor issues is considered “sensitive.” Sensitive kids on the autism spectrum pose some significant challenges when it comes to discipline. They tend to become emotionally overwhelmed easily, are likely to get upset if the parent raises an eyebrow at their behavior, and often worry about getting into trouble.

What earmarks a youngster as sensitive?  

Sensitive kids may exhibit one or all of the following characteristics (the key is to notice a pattern of behavior and the degree to which your son or daughter exhibits one or more of the following):
  • Does he ask profound questions, think a lot on his own, or reflect on his experiences?
  • Does he seem especially sensitive to the feelings of animals?
  • Does she feel a wide, yet intense range of emotions?
  • Does she notice when small household items are moved, or minor changes in other people (e.g., a haircut)?
  • Does she sometimes get so excited she withdraws?
  • Does your youngster get emotionally overwhelmed easily?
  • Is your youngster highly aware of her surroundings?
  • Is your youngster highly sensitive to his senses (e.g., excellent sense of smell or hearing, very sensitive to pain, etc.)?

Coming to the conclusion that your AS or HFA youngster is sensitive can be tough – not tough to understand, but tough to swallow. But don’t despair! It is better that you know early on and take steps toward helping your youngster deal with his or her world going forward. 

As a mother or father, you may struggle trying to discipline your sensitive child. He may become hysterical when you enforce rules, or appear totally devastated when you correct improper behavior. But, discipline is part of parenting, and there are ways to discipline even a sensitive youngster. When determining your disciplinary methods, take your youngster’s sensitivities into account. Harsh discipline (i.e., punishment) or severe consequences (i.e., consequences that are disproportionate to the misbehavior) will make a bad problem worse. Instead, find ways to nurture and guide your “special needs” youngster.

Here are just a few ways to effectively discipline sensitive children on the autism spectrum:

1. Although it’s tempting to bend the rules so as to not upset your sensitive AS or HFA youngster, it won’t be helpful in the long run. Flexibility with some rules is perfectly acceptable, but remember that your main task as a parent is to teach your youngster how to be a responsible grown-up. Overprotective and/or overindulgent parenting does not prepare children for the real world – it literally stunts their emotional growth.

2. Many sensitive kids on the spectrum get easily distressed when they have to make a decision, and they often reject opportunities out of fear.  Sometimes the best thing a parent can do is “nudge” her youngster to take a risk or try something new. If your sensitive youngster knows you will be there for him – and love him no matter what he is feeling – he will have less hesitation in new situations, and will be less self-conscious or “risk-averse.” Also, if he knows you’re not going to “push” him to be something he’s not, he will be more relaxed and prepared for the challenges ahead.

3. Rather than sending your sensitive youngster to "time-out" for bad behavior, create a “relaxation zone.” This is a place where he can go to unwind and recompose himself. Supply the zone with constructive activities (e.g., crayons and paper). Decorate it with soft pillows, or fill it with stuffed animals. When your sensitive youngster begins to act-out, direct him to his relaxation zone where he can have a break. This also gives you an opportunity to regain YOUR composure and rationally figure out the best way to address your child’s behavioral issue.

4. Don’t try to change your youngster’s temperament. Instead, try to help her learn how to cope with sensitivity in a less sensitive world. Instead of viewing her as “weak and whiny,” focus on her abilities and gifts.

5. Make small changes over an extended period of time. If you need to make changes to your youngster’s environment, make them little by little. He will feel less overwhelmed and agitated as a result.

6. When issuing a consequence, explain your reasoning. As a mother or father, you probably believe that your youngster should follow the house rules because you are the “boss.” But, sensitive kids on the autism spectrum do best when parents explain their actions. These children are not necessarily trying to be defiant or questioning your authority and decisions, they simply don't understand why the rules are in place. So, take the time to explain why you are disciplining your child and why you want him to stop a particular behavior (e.g., “You are using this sharp knife as a toy. This is not a toy. You could cut yourself, and I don’t want that to happen. So from now on, if you choose to play with the knives again, you will also choose a consequence.”).

7. Praise your youngster’s “efforts” rather than only praising success. Make it clear that hard work is worthy of praise, even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly in the end. For example, provide praise for behaving bravely, for handling frustration appropriately, or for telling the truth (some sensitive kids lie to get out of trouble, so provide them with a lot of praise for being honest, especially if their honesty doesn’t paint them favorably).

8. Reframe your child’s sensitivities (i.e., turn it into a positive). Help her understand that she simply experiences the world more deeply than most kids – and help her see the strengths associated with this. For example, she probably notices things most people don't, or she may have the ability to stay highly focused on a subject of interest or a favored activity.

9. Sensitive children on the spectrum are often overwhelmed and exhausted after dealing with crowds, noisy environments, bright lights, and other sources of over-stimulation. These children often need time to relax and take a break – otherwise, you can expect a meltdown. Thus, avoid over-scheduling your youngster or expecting too much participation in activities that may involve over-stimulation. Some moms and dads find it helpful to offer their youngster a “serenity corner” with quiet activities (e.g., coloring books, an iPod with soothing music, magazines to read, etc.).

10. Don’t try to force your AS or HFA youngster to adapt to society’s demands. Love and accept him unconditionally. You can’t change who he is. He needs to know you love him no matter how he perceives or reacts to the world.

11. Sensitive children need consequences for poor choices just like any other youngster. Just because a “special needs” boy or girl cries or feels bad doesn’t mean he or she should not receive a consequence for a particular behavioral problem. However, it is important to use discipline (i.e., parental instruction) and not punishment (i.e., parental revenge). Logical consequences are very helpful in the case of the AS or HFA child, because they connect the consequence directly to the misbehavior.

12. Sensitive children need to learn how to verbalize their uncomfortable emotions, and they need to discover appropriate ways to cope with those emotions. “Emotion coaching” can be an excellent way to help these young people how to identify and deal with uncomfortable feelings in socially acceptable ways.

13. “Demonstrate” rather than “order.” When your sensitive youngster acts badly, show her the behavior that you expect. In a calm manner using a soft voice, tell her to “stop and watch.” Then start doing the same behavior that she was doing (she may think you are being silly and realize how ridiculous her behavior was). Next, show her the proper behavior. The act of seeing what you expect (rather than listening to your lectures) will make a stronger and more memorable impact.

14. Before issuing a consequence for misbehavior, step away from the situation momentarily while you select your words carefully. Take a calm tone and clearly explain your youngster's incorrect behavior and the resultant consequence. Patiently explain to her the behavior that you expect in the future. After she has calmed down, give her a hug and reassure her that everything will be fine.

15. Sensitive children often feel bad if they “get in trouble,” so simply changing the way you word things can spin it into a reward (e.g., instead of saying, “You can’t play your video game unless you eat some of your vegetables,” …say, “If you eat some of your vegetables, you can earn some time to play video games!”). Create a formal reward system to help your child earn rewards consistently. However, always remember that the sensitive child usually feels bad if he doesn’t earn a reward. Thus, be prepared to praise his efforts and use reminders like, “You can try again tomorrow.”

In conclusion, consider being more sensitive yourself as the parent. Being a sensitive mom or dad may be helpful in understanding your AS or HFA youngster’s temperament and particular needs as to his sensitivities (e.g., lights, crowds, sounds, clothes, and other preferences). It is especially helpful if a sensitive youngster is born to a well-adjusted, sensitive parent that can steer him in the right emotional direction. Of course, this is true of any youngster with good role models. But, sensitive kids need especially good role models, because they are learning how to use their “gift of sensitivity” in a world that usually doesn't value this trait.

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