Setting Effective Boundaries with Children on the Autism Spectrum

“I have a 6-year-old daughter, Kayla, with HFA. My husband and I are having a terrible time knowing when to set limits with her. She is often critical of herself (and me) …is a very sensitive child …it doesn’t take much to get her very upset and then she becomes aggressive. Sometimes I feel I’m being too hard on her and damaging her self-esteem. But other times I feel I’m not being tough enough which is spoiling her. How do I walk the fine line between too much punishment and not enough?”

Being empathetic doesn't mean always giving your high functioning autistic daughter what she wants. But when she is being refused another handful of candy, or disciplined for pushing her brother, or trying to scratch you, the limit-setting needs to be done in a firm, but very gentle, manner. Gentle boundaries coupled with empathy and flexibility will gradually help your “sensitive” daughter be less critical of you and herself.

Expand your daughter's dialogue about what comforts and what bothers her. For instance, say she doesn't like the way you put her dress on. So you try again, only this time you ask her to help direct you so that you are exchanging lots of words and gestures and, at the same time, following her general guidelines. This tends to ease the tension.

Trying too hard to get it "right," or putting the dress on her in a forceful or irritated fashion, will start a power struggle. As you build your daughter’s trust and confidence in you, she begins to see you as a colleague who can help her, rather than as an adversary out to get her.

In response to the advice above, parents often tell me they fear they will overindulge or spoil their son or daughter and worsen the demanding behavior by being so understanding. I tell them that “you can't spoil ‘special needs’ children by helping them to feel more secure. Instead, you spoil them by not setting boundaries.”

Underneath your “spoiled” daughter is a girl who thinks, "I can't get the boundaries I need. I have to push more and more and more because nothing works." But you need to set boundaries on her aggression, not on her need for comfort and security. You don't set boundaries and soothe at the same time. And you need a lot of patience (not an easy task to accomplish).

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

In setting boundaries, take advantage of your daughter's debating skills to hash-out rules, rewards, and consequences in advance together. Try to avoid surprises – and avoid throwing a temper tantrum yourself. Also, it is best to try to avoid situations where the family becomes so stressed and exhausted that you and your husband stop nurturing each other and a great deal of anger develops in the family.

Under those conditions, one parent commonly tries to overprotect the child in an anxious, hovering way, unsettling the child with needy intrusiveness. And the other parent, feeling deprived and jealous, often becomes overly punitive with the child. It's only when you and your husband have your own needs met that you can be truly gentle and collaborative in setting the required boundaries.

For young people on the autism spectrum, the general parenting-goal is to be warm, soothing, and respectful as much as possible. Meet your daughter’s inflexibility with flexibility. For example, you're helping tie her shoes. She pulls her foot away and says, "That’s too tight, stupid. That hurts my foot!" Instead of saying, "Don't talk to me that way!" …you can pause and say, "I guess your foot is a bit sensitive," as you tie her shoe one more time, saying, "Is this way better?"

At another time (when she isn't feeling so fussy), you can raise the more general issue of why she gets so angry at you and calls you "stupid" whenever you're not "perfect." Here, you can help her reflect on the fact that maybe she is being extra hard on you. As you help her see this pattern and encourage her to become more flexible, remember that she is probably being harder on herself, calling herself "stupid" or worse.

For this reason, your defensive stance (e.g., "Don’t talk to me that way!"), and then getting angry over your daughter’s spoiled, insensitive behavior not only doesn't work, but actually strengthens her rebelliousness. Whatever your daughter is doing to you, she is probably doing worse to herself. When you come down on her too hard, you may only intensify her self-criticism – and probably even self-hatred. Empathy and flexibility, coupled with quiet explanations, help her see that she is being hard on both you and herself.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:


•    Anonymous said... Been there, did some damage to that self esteem and it took years to get it back! Good luck, every child is different, just hang in there!!
•    Anonymous said... I feel the same way. It's like groundhogs day every day with my 3 on the Spectrum. I'm so tired of it all.
•    Anonymous said... Our best line is First this then you get to do this... most times it goes like this, "First you listen and obey and go get redy for bed, then you can come back and watch 10 minutes of TV. most times it is also smaller conversations. He usually need it broken down into small small tasks. First you apoligize then you can..... do......etc etc
•    Anonymous said... remeber that asperger kids are VERY literal and consitance is one of the most important factors! We have an 8 year old who is High Functioning Autisum (Aspergers), ADHD and Anexity disorder. We are very strict with what behavior is aceptable and what is not. We have a 9 year old with no issues and what rules I have for him I have for my 8 year old as well. I think where the big difference is when my 8 year old has a tantrum I am more understanding where my 9 year old it doesnt fly. When ever Jake gets upset we very comly tell him to go to his room and get himself under control. Sometimes It takes 10 min other times he throws such a fit he falls asleep. Now we have been doing this ever sicne he was about 4 and didnt get his diagnoses until he was 6 almost 7. Once he calms down we try to talk about what happened. He got upset the other night because his brother asked for ice cream and served him self and he was man because I didnt remind him that he could have ice cream. So he comes up with the solution the next night he gets to have ice cream and his brother doesnt. I just laugh and he goes about his merry way. You have to remember when you are discussing things their perception of this will be different but hearing their side of things makes them feel better. We work with a therapist every other week on the really hard issues Like Hitting when he gets upset and yelling at teachers or adults. Remember they live in a black and white world and they do not understand gray areas. I guess the best we can do is try to teach them to reconise the gray area and maybe things will be better. Hang in there, I have found that with the strick guidelines he is much happier!!!
•    Anonymous said... This is an excellent post! I especially like: "But you need to set boundaries on her aggression, not on her need for comfort and security." The author's ideas and examples of Authoritative parenting (high warmth, appropriate discipline) are not only good for special needs children but for any parent.
•    Anonymous said... This is exactly how I used to feel, don't get me wrong I still feel feel like this sometimes. It's a tough situation to be in. One thing I have learnt is I have to be strict, otherwise it confuses my 8 year old son who has suspected aspergers. He can't think outside of the box, so if I was to tell him after he had done something wrong "don't do that again please" he wouldn't learn from it unless I give him a consequence and follow through with whatever punishment I have told him he will get the next time he does it. There was one time where I felt like all I was doing was telling him off constantly, it used to make me feel so depressed and full of guilt, but I new that I had to be strict otherwise he will grow up and think it's ok to behave badly wherever he goes. Eventually overtime it does comes right. I felt awful at first being so strict, I felt like I was knocking my child self esteem. But if I didn't follow through with what I had told my child, all it does is create mixed messages for him in an already confusing world and makes all the long term situations a million times harder to deal with because he doesn't know where the boundaries are. Things are a lot more better now and I'm so glad I stuck to my guns with my son (even though it hurt me at the time to have to be so strict) I hardly ever need to tell him off anymore and my relationship just feels a lot more calmer/closer towards my son now.
•    Anonymous said... This is my God-daughter every day. She makes big strides to have good behavior, but she has a least one meltdown a day. And then once she calms down, she gets worked up again because she couldn't control herself. The more stressed she gets, the more aggressive she gets. The more you try to correct or punish her the worse she feels. It's like a never ending spiral. *sigh* But she handles it with as much grace as possible. And I'm so proud of her, she still tries to make her own coping skills and to work on her temper. She's only 7! Great post, keep hanging in there, keep your patience, and breathe! Lol
•    Anonymous said... When my son starts to get aggressively angry, I reiterate that this conversation has ended when we start yelling. So time out, think it through and when you decide you can calmly have this conversation we will pick it back up but until then..this is going nowhere fast. Trying to be assertive without coming across demanding. Sometimes time to calm down and think things through helps my son. Not always but.. Sometimes it works.
*   Anonymous said... This is an excellent post! I especially like: "But you need to set boundaries on her aggression, not on her need for comfort and security." Your sensitive ideas and examples of Authoritative (high warmth and appropriate discipline) are excellent for all parents, not just parents of children with special needs. Well done!

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Parents' "Compliance Strategies" for Uncooperative Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“Do you have any tricks for getting my very uncooperative (high functioning autistic) son to comply with requests? Even simple ones, like taking one minute to put his dirty clothes in the hamper, initiate a power struggle. This usually results in me doing the task myself just to keep things from escalating into a tantrum or meltdown. Help!”

You're in luck. There are a lot of “compliance strategies” that often work quite well with uncooperative kids on the autism spectrum. Here are just a few to get you started:

1. Keep it simple. Try asking your son to do three simple requests first. Request can be things such as asking what time it is, what day it is, to hand you an object he is sitting near, or to tell you something fun he did that day, etc.  Then make your fourth request the more complicated one you were originally hoping to get your son to do (e.g., picking up his dirty clothes). Uncooperative children are more likely to comply with a more difficult request after successfully completing three simple requests first.

2. Arrange the environment so that it is easier to comply with requests. This technique will encourage your son to do what is asked, because the “response effort” is much less than usual. For example, (a) bundling an entire outfit with underwear, socks and everything so that it is very easy for your son to go to the closet and pick out what he should wear that day, and (b) making sure your son has a trashcan and hamper in his bedroom where it can be easily used. Try using other organization products as well.

3. Break down tasks so that they are easier to understand. When working with your son, instead of just asking him to do something (e.g., clean his room), give 3-4 specific behaviors that would result in a cleaner room (e.g., putting away clothes in the hamper, making the bed, putting papers in the trash, etc.).

4. Phrase requests differently to achieve better compliance. State the request as if you are already assuming your son will complete it, and if possible, provide a choice that he can only make if he completes the request (e.g., After you take your shower, did you want to wear your black or blue pants? When you brush your teeth, did you want to use the electric tooth brush or a regular tooth brush? When you put away your clothes, did you want to hang them all up in your closet or put them in the drawers?)

5. State the obvious. Instead of asking or telling your son to do certain things, try making an obvious statement that leads to the desired behavior. For example, if you want him to pick up his clothes, say something like, “It looks like you have some dirty clothes on the floor that could go in the hamper.” If you want him to wipe his or her face at dinner, instead of telling him to use his napkin, say something like, “You have some food on your face.”

Compliance strategies are a form of social influence where a child does what parents want him to do, following their requests or suggestions. It is similar to obedience, but there is no order – only a request.



Best Comment... I have found that just the simple act of giving my child more time to process my requests have resulted in him complying with requests more often. It is well known the kids with Autism/Apsergers have a slower processing system. For example, I will say, “I want you to put your toys back in the toy box”, I will then think of a small task that I need to complete, even if I have to make one up. I will then say “I am going to go put a few dishes away, and when I come back I expect your toys to be where they belong” Me walking away gives my child time to process what I have asked him to do, and it gives him time to do it. If he chooses not to do what I have asked him to do while I do my task I will say something like “I see that you did not put your toys away like I asked, I have one more thing to do. While I go pick up a few dirty clothes, I expect you to follow directions and put your toys away like I asked you to. If you do not do this, you will lose *insert privilege here* until it IS done”. Then FOLLOW THROUGH. DO NOT GIVE IN AND DO THIS CHORE YOURSELF or it reinforces that if he refuses to do something you will come in and do it for him. This takes PRACTICE, sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but being consistent really IS the key. Yes, sometimes you will have to let the mess be until he/she is ready to pick up the mess and get his privilege back, but the mess isn’t going anywhere, I promise you that.

•    Anonymous said...  We figured out my son had a lot of meltdown because he was hungry, if your child is having meltdowns during the same time of day check if its a time he/she is coming off their meds. We had snack time writen into his iep. Also we have our son take melatonin and eat (protein and something else) before bed. He also earns game time, an allowance or something special for doing choirs. When he was younger if he had a melt down my husband would hug him tight or I would rub his back until he calmed down. We had trouble getting him to his room so we would just do it right where he was sitting, cuts down on the time of the tantrums.
•    Anonymous said... Brilliant so simple
•    Anonymous said... Good for non-aspies as well!!
•    Anonymous said... he will only do things when he really wants something, he's 19yrs old, so i wait till he wants something then I have him do chores, and thing is he always wants something.
•    Anonymous said... I agree with Caroline. My son is now 16 and has more understanding of what basic things that need to happen every day. We turn the wifi off. He will usually ask why its off, sometimes he does his stuff, and sometimes he has a meltdown. Trying to be consistent is the hard part.
•    Anonymous said... I would argue that you do have to parent differently for a child on the spectrum. I also really struggle with the terms 'tantrum' and 'meltdown' being confused. An ASD child who has had a meltdown should not be punished.
•    Anonymous said... OMG so simple. I can't believe I never thought of putting a laundry bin in my sons room. So going to try that!
•    Anonymous said... omg story of my life!
•    Anonymous said... Reward charts
•    Anonymous said... These strategies work great for us! Listen to the program CDs, in addition to reading the books, then adapt the premise to your child and your personality.
•    Anonymous said... We put out 8 year old on 5mg respiradone. This enabled her to regulate her meltdowns and function in school like any other child, she can now self regulate in under a few minutes. The change in my daughter on this was quite amazing. She is making heaps of friends and went from 10% to 95%+ completion of class work.
•    Anonymous said... When our boys do not act like part of the team by doing the simple chores set out before them. When they ask us for something we don't comply and remind them that inaction has a consequence. You can't expect someone to help you if you are unwilling to help in return. This always brings up the conversation about mutual respect and teamwork/helping. Ok so it means that the tasks take longer to get accomplished but with repetitive prompts it sinks in.
*    I found writing a list of tasks that needed to be done daily with VERY specific detail on how to do them. Routine is important so if they have to be done on a weekly, daily basis have the list out. The list also worked since there was no "tone" of voice that could make the task seem angry or rushed. It was just expected and then the positive rewards were generated.

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A Special Message to Teens on the Autism Spectrum

There is a philosophy among some individuals in the autism community that people on the autism spectrum are living their lives on the “wrong planet.” But, this way of thinking favors a flaw-based focus, which is the exact opposite of what we want to achieve. Each of us has a special purpose on this planet.

The universe has a plan for you too, and your job is to get in alignment with this plan. So, be encouraged, you are indeed on the right planet. You belong here. You are in this life for a reason.

As a teenager on the autism spectrum, you have areas of strength and areas of challenge. The good news about Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism is that the individual with this condition possesses many more strengths than weaknesses. As an added bonus, when you capitalize on your strengths, many of your weaknesses become manageable – and some correct themselves by default.

You need to begin to reverse the belief of having to focus your development around overcoming your weaknesses, spending precious energy attempting to try and repair your flaws, while your strengths lie dormant and neglected. Capitalizing on strengths rather than fixing flaws is your greatest asset. I call this having a strengths-based focus.

You have things that you are inherently good at. Yet you may be going through your life without truly realizing the things you excel at. Or you may have spent years wasting your valuable time and energy on trying to overcome your weaknesses. This often leads people into attempting to become someone they are not. It leads to a false identity.

Let me make this very clear: you cannot succeed by dealing with weaknesses. Successful people focus on their strengths, they focus on activities and tasks where they can make a positive difference. So for example, if you have the ability to stay "highly focused" on a task for extended periods of time, then put that strength at the center of your character profile. Your key strengths will supply the energy needed to excel within your given profession or hobby.

I'm not saying that you should just ignore your challenges as if they didn't exist. But what I am saying is spend your time and energy building on your strengths. Your flaws will become manageable as you employ a strengths-based focus. Building on strengths is about finding opportunities rather than problems.

It's about learning how to move from analysis to action, taking a proactive stance rather than a reactive stance. For example, if one of your "flaws" is impatience and disorganization, yet you are very creative, you can focus your creative energy and direct it to devising a plan whereby you manage your unorganized tendencies by slowing down and thinking about what you are doing.

The bottom line is this: you are a unique individual who carries a host of skills and attributes which have the potential to become powerful tools to self-empowerment. What you focus on will become your reality. So if you focus on fixing flaws, more flaws show up in your life. If, on the other hand, you focus on your strong points, more strong points begin to appear. This is why you must have a strengths-based focus.

Good luck in life!


Note to parents:

As the years go by, are you seeing your Asperger's or High-Functioning Autistic teen rapidly becoming reduced to a person who is surviving on:
  • Anger
  • Being a mistake
  • Depression
  • Hate
  • Isolation
  • Low self esteem
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Self hate

Have you heard your teenager say things like:
  • “I'm a mistake.”
  • “I'm dumb.”
  • “I'm useless.”
  •  “I hate myself.”
  • “I wish I were dead.”
  • “What is wrong with me?”
  • “Why was I born?”

If so, then alarm bells should be going off. You know changes need to happen! Low self-esteem and behavioral problems go hand-in-hand.

My Aspergers Teen eBook is guaranteed to (a) improve your teen's behavior and self-esteem, and (b) empower parents and assist them in starting to enjoy their amazing special needs teens.

Educational Videos and Podcasts: Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

In this post, I decided to provide a compilation of educational videos and podcasts for parents, teachers and others that will facilitate a deeper understanding of children and teens with Asperger Syndrome, High-Functioning Autism and other Autism Spectrum Disorders.


·       Aspergers in Girls
·       Aspergers Meltdowns
·       Mind-Blindness
·       The Gift of Aspergers
·       This Emotional Life

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...