Pick and Choose Your Battles Carefully

Not every behavioral misstep is worth fighting over. As moms and dads of Aspergers and High-Functioning Autistic (HFA) children, we all want to be consistent disciplinarians. We know our kids will see waffling as a sign of weakness, and not take us seriously if we don't stand by our convictions. But kids with the disorder sometimes present us with so many opportunities for behavioral correction that if we pursued every one, they would never be ungrounded!

How do we let our Aspergers and HFA children know that rules are important, and still use discretion when it comes to discipline? Here are some tips on being a caring, yet authoritative parent:

Tip #1: Doing a behavior analysis can help in determining what behaviors will respond to disciplinary action, which ones will be better served by changing the environment or your own expectations, and how to negotiate those that will respond best to that tactic. Here’s how to do an analysis:

A. To start with, you'll want to narrow your focus to one particular behavior to analyze and change. Although it's tempting, don't just choose the thing that most annoys you. A better choice will be something that particularly puzzles you:
  • Why can your youngster do math just fine some days, and balks on other days?
  • Why does he insist on punishment even when it upsets him?
  • Why does he get so wound up and wild?
  • Why is your youngster sweet and compliant sometimes, then resists to the point of tantrum over something inconsequential?

As long as you're going to be a detective, you might as well give yourself a good mystery. While you're stalking one behavior, you may need to let others slide, unless it's a matter of safety. Don't try to change everything all at once.

B. Keep a journal -- or, if it is a frequently occurring behavior, a chart -- for noting every incidence of the targeted behavior. Think of what might have happened directly before the behavior, and also earlier in the day. Include the time of day the behavior occurred, and what happened before, during, and after. Think of what happened directly after the behavior, and whether it offered the youngster any reward (even negative attention can be rewarding if the alternative is no attention at all). Ask yourself:
  • After a certain event?
  • Around transitions?
  • Does the behavior tend to be more frequent during a certain time of day?
  • In anticipation of something happening?
  • When routine is disrupted?
  • When something happens or doesn't happen?
  • When things are very noisy or very busy?

Keep track over the course of a few weeks and look for patterns.

C. It may seem as though your youngster saves his worst behavior for public places, where it causes you the most embarrassment. But there may be a reason for that.
  • Does he have a hard time resisting touching and banging things like buttons or doors?
  • Does he have trouble in places where he needs to stay still and quiet, like church?
  • Does he resist places where children may be cruel, like the bus or the playground?
  • Does he panic in places that are busy and noisy, like the mall?
  • Does he shy away from places with strong smells or bright lights?
  • Is there something about those places that might be distressing?

Notice reactions to different environments and add these insights to your journal or chart.

D. You can stubbornly insist that your youngster is responsible for his own behavior and wait for him get in line, but you're liable to be waiting for a long time. While you may find the behavior annoying, disruptive, or inappropriate, it may be filling a need for your youngster. And even if your youngster is genuinely unhappy about the negative consequences of his behavior, he may not understand it enough to control it. In the end, it is far easier for you to change -- your expectations, actions, reactions, responses -- than for your youngster to change. You will need to do some detective work to determine the support your youngster needs to improve his behavior, and provide it. Ultimately, you can teach your youngster to do this for himself. But you have to lead the way.

E. Take the data from your journal or chart, the patterns you've turned up there, the observations on environments, and see if you can figure out what's behind the behavior. Maybe he blows up over something inconsequential because he's used up all his patience weathering frustrations earlier in the day. Maybe he balks at math when he sees too many problems on the page. Maybe he gets wound up because being good gets him no attention. Maybe he begs for punishment because going to his room feels safer than dealing with a challenging situation. Once you have a working theory, make some changes in your youngster's environment to make it easier for him to behave.

Tip #2: If you decide a rule is important enough to be enforced without negotiation and without exception, then enforce it every single time. Never let it slide, even when it would be convenient for you to do so. Your youngster needs to know that the outcome in those situations will be the same every single time, or else she's going to argue with you every single time.

Tip #3: If your youngster is impulsive, or can't handle stress very well, or perseverates on phrases and activities once he is put "in the pipeline," one of the worst things you can say is, "If you do that one more time, you'll be punished." You may find that your youngster will be irresistibly drawn to do just that, at once -- whether because you've set an impulse in motion, because he can't deal with the stress of waiting for the other shoe to drop, or because he gets stuck on what you've said.

On other occasions though, an ultimatum seems to be what's called for. You can't just let behavior go on forever, yet you don't want to deal the consequence without giving your youngster a chance. Instead of specifying one more time, try saying something along the lines of, "I have a number of times in my head, and you're not going to know what that number is. But when you hit that number, you will get a consequence." This allows you to give your youngster extra chances if he seems to be trying without going back on a threat, and gives your youngster a little comfort zone to know that he can slip once or twice. Some children will dislike the uncertainty of it, and for them, this might not be the best technique. But if certainty is more pressure than your youngster can handle, it may just do the trick.

Tip #4: If you've determined to allow negotiations for some behaviors, allow them every time. Don't clamp down sometimes and ease up others. Your youngster needs to respect that you will listen to him as promised.

Tip #5: If you've determined to let some things slide, let them slide every time. Don't suddenly decide to swoop down because you're in a bad mood and your youngster has been pushing your buttons. If he has to play by the rules, so do you.

Tip #6: Figure out which battles to choose, and which to let by. Here’s how: Use three baskets, one for things that are truly nonnegotiable, one for things that are important but allow for some compromise, and one for things that just aren't important enough to make a scene over. The first basket should be the smallest, and the last the largest. Think of the things you fight with your youngster over. Could any of them get tossed in the second or third baskets?

Tip #7: Instead of presenting your youngster with a choice between doing it your way or being punished (at which many children on the autism spectrum will automatically choose the punishment), try to present a choice between two options that would both be agreeable to you. Saying, "Put on your shoes right now or you're in big trouble!" may be less likely to bring compliance than, "Which do you want to put on first, your shoes or your jacket?"

Good luck …you can do this!
 

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