Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Modified Disciplinary Techniques for Children on the Autism Spectrum

If your youngster has Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), should you discipline him in a different way than you do with your other kids? The answer is YES! But, they still need discipline. AS and HFA is a challenge, not an excuse for misbehavior. Nonetheless, moms and dads will need to be more flexible in their expectations.

Parents must understand up front that AS and HFA impacts their child’s ability to understand instruction, follow through on tasks, and control his impulses. Also, they will need to provide discipline and instruction more often and with more consistency. Your “special needs” child is emotionally much younger than his chronological age. After all, he has a “developmental disorder.” So, lessons may take longer to sink in.

Misbehavior from kids on the autism spectrum is frustrating – and repeated disobedience over an extended time can be infuriating to many moms and dads. Just like with their “typical” kids, most parents will automatically respond to misbehavior by using punishment to stop it. But this isn’t the most effective approach – especially for a youngster with combined autism and ADHD or ODD. Punishment alone never teaches new behavior. It only teaches what NOT to do – it doesn’t teach what TO do.

Here are a few tips regarding modified disciplinary techniques for kids on the autism spectrum:

A Different Form of Time-out—

Kids on the spectrum often enjoy playing alone. As a result, a “time-out” in their bedroom is often a reward rather than a punishment. Thus, when issuing a time-out with your AS or HFA child, it’s best to put him in a place without the comforts of the bedroom (e.g., at the dining room table without games, toys, digital devices, etc.).

Keep time-outs unusually short (e.g., 1 minutes for young kids, 3 minutes for preschoolers, and 5 minutes for 6-10 year olds). This is plenty of time IF your child shows quiet feet, quiet hands, and quiet mouth. Long time-outs often start a battle of wills, and the message that the consequence sends gets lost.

Contrast “time-out” with “time-in.” For example, if you put your AS or HFA youngster in time-out for pushing his sister, you should have been praising him earlier for playing appropriately with his sister – and should praise him after time-out for completing the 1-5 minute consequence successfully. If there isn't a big difference between time-out and time-in, the “special needs” youngster doesn't understand the consequence.

If you tell your youngster to go to time-out and she ignores you, then simply add 1 minute to her time-out. If she ignores you again, then add another minute. If she ignores you a third time, DON’T add more additional minutes (if it goes over 5 minutes), and DON’T pick her up and drag her to time-out. This will make things worse, and the attention (which is now negative attention) can unintentionally reinforce the noncompliance. The course of action at this point is to simply impose a consequence that “hurts” (e.g., no video games for the rest of the day). Deliver that consequence calmly, and don't talk about it further. Even if your youngster says, “No mom, I'll go into time-out now” …don't give in! Otherwise, she will know that you “cave-in” if she just sounds desperate enough.

A “prompt” (e.g., a timer) to signal the beginning and end of a time-out will help. If your youngster won’t cooperate, remind her that the time-out doesn’t start until she is quietly in her time-out location.

Practice time-outs ahead of time. For example, ask your youngster to pretend that she behaved badly, and that she is being sent to time-out. Have her practice going to time-out without putting up a fight. Then reward with acknowledgement and praise for completing the practice run.

A Different Reward System—

Rewards work well for kids with AS or HFA, but they, too, may need to be tweaked slightly. For instance, one expectation may be to take turns when playing games with siblings. It's probably not realistic to set that expectation for a whole day, because if the AS or HFA child messes up in the morning, he’s lost the entire day. Rather, break the day up into thirds and give points for appropriate behavior in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. Once your child has earned points, you can’t take them away.

So, if your child plays fairly in the morning, he earns reward points (rewards can include doing something special, or receiving a special treat or privilege). If he plays unfairly in the afternoon, he must leave the game and go somewhere else for a timeout, and he doesn’t receive reward points – BUT he doesn’t lose the morning points he earned. Also, most kids on the spectrum need more frequent rewards. They will lose interest if they have to wait an entire week to earn one.

Avoiding Physical Punishment—

A good ass-whipping may have worked for you as a child – I know it did for me! However, spanking, yelling, or other aversive methods should never be used on an AS or HFA child. These somewhat traditional (or old school) methods may work in the short term, but they don’t prevent problematic behavior in the long run – often resulting in worse problems! This is because one side-effect of the use of physical punishment is counter-aggression. So, if you use this type of punishment on your “special needs” youngster, guess what he is going to do the next time he’s angry with his sister? Counter-aggress!

Physical punishment teaches aggressive behavior; it teaches how to punish back. Also, the AS or HFA youngster may begin to engage in escape or avoidance behavior. For example, if he gets spanked at home for acting-out at school, he may refuse to go to school due to the anxiety he now has about his school-related, acting-out behavior.

Taking Advantage of Obsessions—

Almost all kids go through periods of development where they become engrossed in one subject matter or another, but kids with AS and HFA often display obsessive and repetitive characteristics, which can have significant implications for behavior. In many cases, it is appropriate to utilize the obsession or “special interest” to motivate and reward your youngster for good behavior. However, always ensure any reward associated with positive behavior is granted immediately in order to assist the youngster in recognizing the connection between the two.

Concrete Instruction—

The AS or HFA child also does better with very specific instructions. For example, instead of telling her to “clean her room,” be specific. For example, “Be sure to pick all clothes off the floor, and put all books on the bookshelves.” In this way, she clearly understands what to do. Also, this chore should be visually represented on a chore chart somewhere in her bedroom.

Learn How Your Child Thinks—

Kids on the spectrum tend to be very logical in their thinking, focusing more on facts than feelings. If the consequence doesn’t make sense, it will not likely change the unwanted behavior (e.g., making the child do extra chores because he got mad and broke his favorite toy). The discipline must fit the “crime” (e.g., the child breaks his treasured toy, so he must take money from his allowance to purchase a new one). There must be a connection between the misbehavior and the discipline. So, before you discipline, be mindful that your youngster's logic will not necessarily reflect your idea of common sense. In addition, look for small opportunities to deliberately allow your youngster to make mistakes for which you can set aside “discipline-teaching” time. This will be a learning process for your youngster – and you!

Picking the Right Battles—

Parents can't change everything at once in their AS or HFA youngster. Instead, they should choose a few big things that they want to work on, and put the other things aside for now. Pick your battles carefully. BUT, when you do pick one, stay with it and be consistent! AS and HFA children thrive on consistency, routine and structure. Use this trait to your advantage.

Replacement Behavior—

Kids on the autism spectrum need a “replacement behavior.” So, rather than saying, “You need to stop that” …say something such as, “I need you to stop _______ (be very specific in describing the misbehavior), and do ________ instead (be very specific in describing the replacement behavior).” For example, “I need you to stop bullying your sister. So, go to your room and find something else to do. Maybe play your video game.” Also, use the phrase “I need…..” as noted above. This is something YOU, the parent, need. Your AS or HFA child doesn’t “need” to stop picking on his sister. He’s perfectly fine with doing it.

Visual Instruction—

Another important consideration for a youngster with AS or HFA is to teach him the skills he needs to succeed BEFORE he has a problem. For instance, all kids need guidance to help them keep up with chores and homework. However, a child on the autism spectrum can't be expected to "just get it" from verbal instruction. Instead, he needs a visual schedule that he can follow. So, devise a visual chore chart, as well as a homework chart (i.e., what is to be done, in what order, and when it is to be completed).

In order to effectively discipline the AS or HFA child, parents will need to comprehend each of the factors above and fully place them in the proper context of any given situation. This knowledge will aid parents in catching problems early and laying a foundation for “prevention,” rather than dealing with problems after they occur and having to jump to “intervention.”

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1 comment:

Kathy silvis said...

I've been trying to get my husband to go along with the plan of completely removing video games from our 13 yr.old hfa sons routine and having earn his time on video games. Video games are all he wants to do and we have school and home issues to address therefore I feel this would be the best solution. My husband doesn't feel the same way. How do I convince him this is a good strategy?

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