HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

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The Family Contract: How to Set Effective Boundaries for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“How do I set clear boundaries that I can enforce - and my child with high functioning autism will obey?”

The key to setting effective boundaries is to involve the entire family in the process. Get everyone on the same page. This is accomplished by implementing a “family contract” in which the house rules - and the consequences for violating those rules - are clearly explained and written on an actual contract.

In a family contract, parents agree to do certain things, for example:
  • encourage the child to achieve in all areas of life
  • hold the child accountable for the choices he makes, and ensure that he experiences privileges and unfortunate consequences that go with each choice
  • listen, and not overreact or judge the child for things that don't make sense to her
  • love the child for who she is
  • make themselves available to the child whenever he or she needs them – even when they are “busy”
  • never view the child as a failure, even when she makes mistakes
  • provide a comfortable, safe and mutually respectful place to talk honestly
  • provide the child with housing, food and clothing



In exchange, the AS or HFA child agrees to do certain things, for example:
  • apply himself in school and other activities
  • avoid threatening to do harm to self or others
  • avoid the use of drugs and alcohol
  • be honest, even when he or she doesn’t feel like it
  • be respectful towards everyone in this home
  • keep her promises and strive to be trustworthy
  • talk to parents when he is angry, upset or confused

All of these stipulations are written into the family contract, which is then placed in a visible area of the house to be reviewed and revised as often as needed.

Regardless of the developmental stage of the AS or HFA youngster, some basic principles can help guide the process of developing an effective family contract: 
  • An effective family contract does not instill a loss of trust, shame, negative guilt, or a sense of abandonment; rather, it instills a sense of greater trust between the youngster and the parents.
  • The purpose of the contract is to help the child internalize rules, organize himself, and acquire appropriate behavior patterns.
  • The temperaments of the youngster and the parent require flexibility. Kids with “special needs” and developmental delays need additional accommodations.

Kids raised without reasonable limits will have difficulty adjusting socially out in the real world. In a family contract, rules are established so that the AS or HFA child can learn to live cooperatively with other people in the family. This is a crucial skill for kids on the autism spectrum because (a) they already have social skills deficits by virtue of the disorder, and (b) we are all social creatures by nature, and therefore must learn to get along (e.g., at home, school, work, and the community at large).

Here are a few tips that will help promote an effective family contract:
  1. Just concentrate on two or three rules at first.
  2. Allow for your youngster’s temperament and individuality.
  3. Apply consequences as soon as possible.
  4. In general, it is more effective to anticipate and prevent undesirable behavior than to punish it. Thus, when possible, deal with the difficult behavior in advance - or away from - the actual misbehavior, not in the heat of the moment. An “away-from-the-moment” discussion can help prevent undesirable behavior by giving you the opportunity to teach your youngster the desirable behavior in advance. 
  5. Apply rules consistently.
  6. Avoid nagging and making threats without consequences.
  7. Do not enter into arguments with your youngster during the correction process.
  8. Ensure that your youngster knows the correction is directed against the behavior and not him or her as a person. 
  9. Always guard against humiliating your youngster during the corrective process. 
  10. Model forgiveness and avoid bringing up past mistakes.
  11. Ignore unimportant and irrelevant behavior (e.g., swinging legs while sitting at the dinner table).
  12. Know and accept age-appropriate behavior (e.g., spilling a glass of milk is not willful defiance for a 4-year-old, whereas refusing to wear a bicycle helmet after repeated warnings is willful defiance in a 6-year-old).
  13. Make the consequences brief (e.g., time-outs should last one minute per year of the youngster’s age, to a maximum of five minutes).
  14. Mean what you say – but say it without yelling at your youngster. 
  15. Be sure to prioritize. Safety always comes first, correcting behavior that harms people and property comes second, and unwanted behaviors (e.g., whining, tantrums, interrupting etc.) comes third. 
  16. Reinforce desirable behavior (e.g., praise positive behavior and “catch” your child being good).
  17. Make consequences realistic (e.g., grounding for two weeks may not be feasible).

How do you know whether or not you have an effective family contract in place? It’s effective if you are accomplishing most of the following:
  • your child can tolerate discomfort when necessary
  • discipline is applied with mutual respect in a firm, fair, reasonable and consistent way
  • your child is assertive without being aggressive or hostile
  • it fosters the development of your youngster’s own self-discipline
  • your youngster always knows that you love and support him or her
  • it helps the youngster to develop a healthy conscience and an internal sense of responsibility and control
  • it helps your youngster fit into the real world happily and effectively
  • it teaches and guides the child, and doesn’t just force him or her to obey
  • your child is considerate of the needs of others
  • it protects the youngster from danger
  • your child is able to postpone pleasure
  • he or she is able to respect your authority - and also the rights of others

The bottom line is this: Social skills deficits are what give children on the autism spectrum the most problems in life. This is why it’s so terribly important for them to get acquainted with social order as soon as possible. And the best way to accomplish this goal is through the ongoing use of a formal family contract. In this way, when the child begins school life and encounters the list of “school rules” to abide by, the idea of following established rules - and receiving consequences for violating those rules - will not be a foreign concept to the child.


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