The "Smart Parenting" of Children on the Autism Spectrum

"For those parents of both neurotypical kids and children on the autism spectrum, do you basically parent the same - or is there a big difference in your approach with the autistic child?"

There are basically two types of parents who are raising Aspergers and High-Functioning Autistic (HFA) children: (1) those who use "traditional" parenting techniques with ALL their children - including the one with Aspergers, and (2) those who have learned that you simply can NOT parent Aspergers children and "typical" children in the same way.

Why? Because the mind of a child on the autism spectrum is wired differently than that of a "typical" child. 

Think of it like this: Let's say you have 3 children. Two of them only speak English, and one only speaks German. You, as a parent,  have learned to speak both languages. So, which language will you use when you are trying to get your point across to the German-speaking child? German, of course! But too many parents are speaking a foreign language to their Aspergers or HFA child, and then they wonder why the kid "doesn't get it." 

It's not that your child "doesn't hear" you; rather, he or she "doesn't understand" you. When you, as a parent, try to teach your child how to behave, you must know how he or she thinks and what language he or she understands. Don't speak "neurotypical" to a child on the spectrum.

When helping these special needs children to learn new behaviors (e.g., positive social skills, taking “no” for an answer, doing chores, completing homework, etc.), parents can use a combination of parenting strategies that work well with nearly any child, but that seem to work especially well with the child on the spectrum, including:
  1. being a positive role model
  2. consistently following through with positive and negative consequences
  3. continuous reinforcement
  4. developing and clarifying clear expectations
  5. modeling
  6. praising the youngster for his or her behavior
  7. prompting
  8. rehearsing appropriate behavior
  9. role playing corrective behaviors
  10. staying calm in the midst of meltdowns when your youngster gets upset

 ==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Let’s take a deeper look at some of these strategies:

1. "Target Behavior of the Day" is a technique used to help Aspergers and HFA children think about good behavior on a daily basis. Parents can introduce this exercise by asking the child to make a list of specific behaviors that are desirable (e.g., listening when parents talk, waiting your turn, speaking with an inside voice, cleaning up the bedroom, not picking on the younger sister, etc.). These behaviors are then written on large strips of poster-board and displayed everyday on the "Target Behavior of the Day" bulletin board. During the day, the mother or father records a mark on a tally card each time the child displays the desirable behavior. If the child modeled such behavior throughout the day, the parent praises (e.g., “You did a great job of being responsible today”) and rewards (e.g., “As a reward, you can have an extra 15 minutes of computer time tomorrow evening”) the child at day’s end.

2. “Do what I say and not what I do” is a common phrase that is often repeated; however, it only confuses kids on the autism spectrum. These young people will not do what the parent says, rather they will do what the mother or father has modeled. Kids model the behaviors that the parent has presented to them time and time again. Looking at the messages you send your youngster is easily seen by analyzing your own behaviors. Your main goal is to always set a positive example that your child can model.

3. Before parents concentrate their efforts on disciplining their youngster for misconduct, they must have a strategy, or game plan, for teaching their youngster how he or she is expected to behave. Moms and dads must model the appropriate behavior for their child if they want him or her to be successful in behavior modification.

4. Continuous reinforcement is an “operant conditioning” principle in which the child is reinforced every single time he or she meets parental expectations. For example, you, as a parent, might offer an extra 15 minutes of computer time every time your child completes his or her homework before dinner. However, one of the biggest dangers when using this type of reinforcement is “saturation.” For example, the child basically gets full – you keep offering that extra 15 minutes of computer time if homework is completed, but it’s no longer a motivating force for the child. In other words, NOT doing homework before dinner has more value for the child than extra time on the computer. Thus, the idea that “giving reinforcement in the same way all the time” is the best way to teach/learn is NOT necessarily true. Instead, you will want to periodically offer other reinforcers that have equal value (e.g., the child can have his or her favorite food item for dinner if homework is completed on time).

5. Developing clear expectations of what both parents want is crucial. Depending on the background, or what is deemed as right and wrong, parents, within reason, should plan and communicate their expectation to each other. Creating a list of expectations (e.g., social, academic, religious, family oriented, personal appearance and hygiene, etc.) for different settings and activities will help moms and dads to be very specific and concrete in teaching their youngster. Some expectations are certainly more demanding than others; however, moms and dads must take into consideration the youngster’s age, ability, developmental status, and resources that are available to the family. Have you, as a parent, taught the expectation to your child? Can your child clearly understand the expectations given? Can your child model and perform what you have expected? Answers to these three questions will determine whether or not your expectations are realistic.

6. Negative consequences are defined as “adding a negative consequence to prevent or decrease a certain behavior that is problematic, or taking away something that the youngster holds dear.” Doing extra chores and/or taking away a privilege are examples of negative consequences. Aspergers and HFA kids will soon realize that the behaviors that are causing these consequences are to be avoided.

7. Positive consequences are used to increase or encourage desirable behaviors. Catching your youngster doing good acts and following directions are great examples of when to apply a positive consequence. Positive consequences can range from short-term rewards (e.g., candy, extra play time, etc.) to long-term rewards (e.g., trips and gifts). Parents should use positive consequences that will work for their youngster, and use consequences that don’t cost money.

8. Providing constructive feedback to the child is important. Many parents have devised an approach for helping their “special needs” son or daughter to demonstrate positive behaviors, For example, every Saturday, one mother writes a brief progress report on the child, describing his behavior (both good and bad), effort (or lack of effort), chore and homework completion (or lack of completion), and the total number of parental requests that were accepted (or rejected). Then the mother meets with the child to discuss the comments in the progress report. During this meeting, mother and son work together to problem solve and suggest alternatives where needed.

9. Role playing with your youngster is great method to teach proper behavior without resorting to the use of punishments or consequences. Each and every time you practice doing the right thing in a situation with your youngster, you increase the chances for his or her success and decrease the likelihood that he or she will engage in that problem behavior in the future. Here is a simple four-step role playing format:
  • narrate the situation that occurred for your youngster
  • swap roles with your youngster
  • begin the role play
  • give critiques by giving feedback on the performance, using praises when needed

Role playing can help an Aspergers or HFA youngster to think in advance and rehearse adaptive responses to potentially frustrating situations, thus developing a more thoughtful and flexible response to the everyday problems that he or she faces.

10. Staying calm is an important part before applying any positive or negative consequences to your youngster’s behavior. Kids with autism can be sarcastic, defiant, rebellious, and even violent. Moms and dads have to prepare themselves for times like these and learn to keep their cool. There are times when these special needs kids will make their mother or father so furious that the parent gets caught up in the moment, and as a result, is not able to think clearly. Parents must be aware of what is going on around them. They need to know their limits to which the youngster pushes, and redirect situations back in focus to respond properly.

11. Verbal prompting has been found to help these children better understand the “house rules.” For example, one mother  helps ease transitions (generally a very difficult time for many children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism) by telling the child when there are "3 minutes to go before ______." Even younger kids who might not comprehend time can benefit from the cue, which alerts them of the approaching change.

12. Praise, praise, and then praise some more. Here is the “how and when” of praising an Aspergers or HFA youngster:
  • Always give a rationale of why you approve of your child's positive behavior. It is always good for the youngster to know why that specific positive behavior benefits him/her or others, since this helps the child to understand the relationship between certain behaviors and the outcomes. Sometimes you can add-in a reward, which reinforces the behavior that you have approved of, described, and given a rationale of why you approve of it.
  • Describe the positive behavior that you want the child to continue. This lets him or her know what behaviors to keep doing in the future. 
  • Praise your youngster when he or she makes positive “attempts” at new skills or tries new tasks.
  • Praise your child at tasks he or she is already doing well at, but that you may have taken for granted.
  • Praise your child when he or she makes improvements on current skills or tasks. 
  • Try action praises like giving a hug, a kiss, a high five, nodding in agreement, or the clapping of hands. 
  • Try vocal praises like “wow”, “keep it up”, “amazing”, “super”, or “that’s a great job.”

 ==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Here are some parenting tips that are very specific to children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism:

1. “Typical" children and those with Asperger’s Syndrome may have very different ways of communicating their feeling about life events, including: managing emotions, learning from life events, incorporating rituals and traditions for managing life events, dealing with dying and death, and coping with illness, injury or recuperation. Just because children may process and communicate their feelings differently, though, doesn't mean it's right or wrong. It is best to be honest and literal to help “special needs” children to manage major life events. Provide information and allow them time to process it.

2. A child with AS may have difficulty understanding clich├ęs or expressions and interpret a phrase literally. By speaking directly and factually, like saying "It's easy" as compared to "It's a piece of cake", the child is more likely to understand the line.

3. Aspergers and HFA children have difficulty with transitions. So, don’t surprise them – let them know your plans.

4. Being met with an individual in a dark uniform can be intimidating to a child on the spectrum, particularly when he or she has been a crime victim or is injured. Police and emergency responders may become frustrated, not knowing that the child they're talking to has an autism spectrum disorder. Responders need to communicate in a way that will create understanding and make the situation less stressful.

5. Body language, facial expressions, gestures, and turning away from someone may be cues that are missed by an AS child. When this happens, it is another opportunity for parents to be direct and factual, realizing that their body language or social cues may not be picked up by their child.

6. Children with Asperger Syndrome can manage situations by being aware of what they're feeling and thinking and expressing their thoughts to important adults in their life. Being aware of when they need help - and asking for it - is a good skill to have.

7. Children with AS take in information from their five senses as do “typical” children. The difference is that AS kids are not able to process it as quickly and can become overwhelmed by the amount of information that they are receiving. As a result, they may withdraw as a coping mechanism.

8. Due to the break of routine with family vacations, many parents of Aspergers and HFA children may avoid taking vacations. Steps can be taken to help make for a successful family vacation. One is sharing information with the child, like pictures or internet web pages. There are organizations that will make accommodations, if requested, to better manage uncertainty, crowds, noise disruption. This includes theme parks who allow “special needs” children to skip long lines and airlines or airports that may allow for a dry-run prior to the trip. Also, prepare prior to the trip so that there is a plan for managing boredom.

9. Environments with the least amount of disruption will help AS students remain calm. Speak in a quiet, non-disruptive tone and utilize a physical space that has a low level of disruption.

10. Many children with an autism spectrum disorder are hypersensitive to changes in sight, touch, smell, taste and sound. The sensory stimulus can be very distracting and can result in pain or anxiety. There are other autistic children who are hyposensitive and may not feel extreme changes in temperature or pain. Each of these has implications for making an autism-friendly environment.

11. Providing the best outcomes for a child with AS may be difficult, complicated by each youngster's unique way of managing communication and interaction with others, associated disorders that make each youngster's situation unique, and emerging understandings of neuro-diversity. Teacher effectiveness can be optimized based on an awareness of the differences along the autism spectrum, acceptance that each youngster is unique, engagement of the youngster in social and educational activities, and employment of teaching methods that are found to be helpful with kids who have developmental disabilities. 

12. Since change of routine can be quite anxiety-producing for many AS children, a structured, predictable routine makes for calmer and happier transitions during the day.

13. Social stories have been a great method to communicate ways in which my Aspergers child can prepare herself for social interaction.

14. Talking about - or engaging in - activities that the AS child cares about is a great way to bond with him or her.

15. When you find out that your child may not be able to look you in the eyes, realize that he or she is not trying to be rude. It’s simply uncomfortable for some of these children to do.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Anonymous said... After years of trying and my mom telling me not to "give in"- it was such a relief and a reward to know it wasn't that I was doing it wrong. I didn't even know the rules!

Anonymous said... Amen to that! It just does not work. They dig in like a tick. Resistance is futile, you have to move to them rather than pull.

Anonymous said... Even parenting 2 aspergers kids is not the same for both, as the same straigies for the same behavior doesn't always work.

Anonymous said... Now, if only we can get the schools to understand this!

Anonymous said... So agree especially with schools my son in mainstream and having daily struggles teachers don't understand and don't want to it seems

Anonymous said... So true x

Anonymous said... This is so reassuring. I read it often and I KNOW I cannot parent them the same way but it feels good to see it in black and white sometimes! My kids are two entirely different entities and one can handle one thing and the other can't. Thankfully, my NT daughter seems to understand the difference! When I tell people my son is stubborn, they brush it off saying all kids are. They have NO IDEA. My daughter is stubborn. Thank goodness. We all should be to a point. My son takes it to a whole new level!

Anonymous said... too true.

Anonymous said... That picture is EXACTLY how I feel every day this year as I homeschool our daughter!! I thought the problems she was having in school were causing her extreme resistance and that schooling at home would help. Wrong. I feel absolutely, totally, completely hopeless and can not STAND it anymore!!!! I do try many of these things, but there are more that I can do. My husband and I will look at this article and come up with a game plan for the rest of our school year (we have to go through June because of all the time my daughter's impossible behavior has stolen from learning). If things don't change, I'm going to send her back to public school just so I can get a break - she is stubborn and impossible no matter where she is at. At least if I can share the burden, maybe we can all be a little calmer and more patient. I had to ask her 15 times, very calmly and patiently to read back her word so I could check the spelling(the verbal exchange is part of the learning and I find skipping it hinders her learning - even though she hates the verbal). She explained very well (and I praised her for it) that when she has to do something that she doesn't want to do, she has a little war or argument in her head and it hinders her ability to speak - she is distracted by the argument. I get that, but when I threaten to take away her DS, she is able to overcome the argument and answer. I have told her that her task is to figure out ways that she can overcome the argument quicker without there being a threat from me. I have tried to give her ideas and I have told her that if she overcomes the argument with only three requests and then compliance she will receive a reward that she chooses ahead of time. That strategy is completely not working! I just want to throw up my hands and let my husband raise her for the next few years. I am all emptied out (and I am NOT one to give up easily - where do you think dear daughter got some of her "stick-to-it-ive-ness?). Ugh!

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