Imposing Effective Consequences for Noncompliant Teens on the Autism Spectrum

“I’m a single mom raising a son on the spectrum (high functioning autistic). He is 16 and a half years old. I get eye rolls from him on a daily basis, impatient ‘Duhs’ when I say something that is apparently just so obvious, and the insistence on having it his way, whether it’s a minor event (“I want 10 more minutes on this game”), or more major (“I’m not going to dad’s this weekend”). I think he was picking up some of this cocky attitude from a few other students in school who are known to be trouble makers. Some of it I chalk up to his strong-willed personality, and, of course, a lot of it has to be his disorder. So, because I passionately want him to grow up to be strong, but not obnoxious …confident, but not rude …and determined, but not defiant, I need some advice on how to use positive discipline with this child.”

Issuing consequences to an “out of line” adolescent with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger’s (AS) is likely to bring out the best and the worst in parents. They want to help their son or daughter make up for what's missing by increasing their love and attention, but these “special needs” adolescents can trigger unique frustrations in moms and dads.

Most adolescents go through foreseeable stages of development in the teen years. Parents know about when to expect what behavior - and how long it will last. When parents know that they don't have to weather this “challenging behavior” phase indefinitely, it helps them cope. But, with many ASD adolescents, the “challenging behavior” stage seems to go on forever, as does the aggravation for the parent.

Raising an autistic teen is a tough job. The joys and sorrows – as well as the ups and downs – are amplified. You cheer at each accomplishment, and you agonize about each new challenge.

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers and High-Functioning Autistic Teens

Here are some important disciplinary strategies for adolescents on the autism spectrum:

1. Visual aids may help your adolescent see the reason behind your disciplinary techniques.  Make an “If/Then Chart” or a “Consequence Chart” that shows exactly what will happen if your adolescent engages in a particular behavioral problem – and why that specific discipline “fits the crime.” Always remember this major tenet: Adolescents on the spectrum thrive on structure and clear rules! Thus, posting a list of unacceptable behaviors and their consequences is very helpful.

2. Another visual aid that is needed is a “rewards chart.”  Equal importance should be placed on appropriate behavior (e.g., acknowledgement and praise, tangible rewards, etc.) to balance out the negative side of things.

3. View “disobedience” as a sign that your teen “needs” something. Every “misbehavior” an ASD adolescent engages in tells parents something about what he or she needs. For example, if your son becomes indignant when asked to do his homework while he is in the middle of playing video games, he is saying in essence, “I’m not prepared to make that transition right now.” Thus, what’s needed here is more structure, which could entail an “activities chart” that illustrates the exact time homework is to be started (and possibly an alarm that sounds 15 minutes prior to “homework time” as a reminder). In this way, there are no disappointing surprises.

4. Of course, there are occasions when consequences for poor choices become necessary (e.g., grounding, taking away privileges, etc.). But, with autistic teens, the consequences should always be (a) immediate, (b) specific, (c) relevant, and (d) short-term:
  • Immediate – A “special needs” teen is likely to have a short memory. So, a consequence issued later in the day for misbehavior that occurred earlier that morning will lose its effectiveness.
  • Specific – ASD teens are very fact-oriented and do not do well in ambiguous situations. Thus, parents must briefly explain in very concrete terms why the teen is receiving a particular consequence.
  • Relevant –  Adolescents on the autism spectrum may not be able to perceive cause-and-effect, thus the consequence must make sense to them. For example, withdrawing a privilege (such as loss of computer time) for being rude is not relevant to the infraction. Playing on the computer has nothing to do with rudeness. In this case, a more germane consequence would be to have the teen apologize to the offended party. (Note: I’m not saying that you should NEVER issue a consequence that doesn’t have a direct tie-in to the misbehavior in question, simply use the loose tie-in as a last resort. In the example above, if the teen refuses to apologize for being rude, then give him the option of (a) apologizing or (b) losing his favorite activity for a period of time. In this way, he has the choice to accept the lesser consequence - an apology, or the stiffer one - loss or privileges.)
  • Short-term – Prolonged consequences will lose their impact due to the fact that most teens on the spectrum have attentional difficulties. In other words, if they are grounded for 3 days, they may forget why they are being punished after the second day.

5. Positive consequences have been shown to be very effective in changing the inappropriate behavior patterns of autistic adolescents (e.g., praise, encouragement, positive reinforcement, etc.). For example, complimenting your adolescent for a responsible, cooperative, or compassionate act will tend to promote that behavior. Thus, catch your teenager doing things right MORE OFTEN than you catch him or her doing things wrong. Diligently search for these opportunities.


6. Keep a diary of your teen’s behavior with the goal of discovering patterns or triggers for misconduct. Recurring behavior may be indicative of the teen taking some gratification in receiving a desired response from the parent or teacher. For instance, the teen may discover that arguing with one of his classmates will result in his being removed from class, which is exactly what he wants.

In this case, the punishment for the misbehavior, or attempting to explain the situation from the perspective of the classmate, may not provide a solution. Instead, it would be best to look at the motivation for the misbehavior. A good question to ask is, “How can this teenager be made more comfortable in class so that he will not want to leave it?”

7. Pick your battles carefully. You can’t possibly address every behavior problem that comes down the pike. Also, some behavior problems may need some form of therapy in order to be eliminated, rather than some form of discipline. So, learn to prioritize. Make a list of 3 or 4 behaviors that you feel are the most deserving of attention, and only work on those.

8. Some parents of a teen on the spectrum can become overprotective. They may make frequent excuses for his behavior, or they may not impose consequences for poor choices where most others agree it to be warranted. When this happens – regardless of the disorder – the balance of authority shifts. The teenager gains more and more control while being protected in a sheltered environment with little or no discipline.

The parent who does very little in the way of discipline, or who micromanages every aspect of the teen’s life is teaching some very artificial life lessons that will significantly hinder the teen in the real world. Knowing when, how, and how much to discipline the ASD teen is very challenging. You may be filled with worry for your teen and his future. But, you still need to find balance in your role as a parent and disciplinarian. There is a fine line between being an effective mother or father, and being perceived as pampering of the “special needs” teen.

9. Don't lower your standards of discipline simply because you have a “special needs” teen. Parents may be tempted to get lax and let their adolescent get by with behaviors they wouldn't tolerate from their other children. Just as with any other teen, adolescents on the autism spectrum need to know - early on - what behavior parents expect. Some moms and dads wait too long to start their “tough love” strategies for out-of-control teen behavior. Then, as their teen transitions to adulthood, parents wonder why their adult child is still playing video games in the basement rather than attending college or working somewhere.

10. Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty for imposing appropriate consequences – even when the child has a “disorder.” Behavior management is not about punishing or demoralizing your teenager. Rather, it's a way to lovingly set boundaries and communicate expectations. Imposing consequences is one of the most important ways you show your  teen that you love and care about him.

11. Help your adolescent build a sense of responsibility. Parents of “special needs” teens may be tempted to rush in and do things for them. But for these adolescents, the principle of "show them how to fish rather than give them a fish" applies all the more.

12. Adolescents on the spectrum tend to prefer being isolated. Thus, being sent to their room for a time-out can actually be a reward for misbehavior unless modified slightly (e.g., being sent to the room with no computer privileges).

Knowing the best way to impose consequences for misbehavior is not an easy task, particularly in light of some of the characteristics commonly associated with the ASD level 1 (e.g., the tendency to blame others rather than assume responsibility for behavior, the inability to perceive cause-and-effect, difficulty generalizing from one situation to another, having a short memory for misdeeds - but not for the consequences, and so on). Nevertheless, with patience, humor, and a sense of perspective, you can become your adolescent's supporter and advocate, even in your role of authority.

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

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said… After going to an all day training on the (neurotypical) teenage brain, I came to believe that typical teenage behavior/brain development is very, very similar to autistic behavior, so all the best techniques that you already use will be helpful. One tidbit I loved is learning that typical teens can't read facial expressions accurately and misread everything as anger, leading to defensiveness, so I tell our boys, "Your brain seems to be misinterpreting something you see on our (parent) faces that isn't there. We are surprised, not angry. Please try (that attitude in response) again." (Also, don't lift your eyebrows. Communicate as if you have Botox face. Every facial twitch can make them feel afraid of/react to misperceived perceived anger.) Teaching our own boys about the parts of their brain and how it changes (esp prefrontal cortex) has been helpful in our home. Logic helps them understand the emotion and to know that what they are experiencing is completely normal (brain and hormonal), so it takes some of the reaction away and allows everyone to respond. The more I learn about development at each stage, the better I can figure out the most effective tools to adapt for my kiddos. I can't find the specific seminar link right now but this link has some great tidbits.
•    Anonymous said… Ahhhh summer vacation is just barely a week old yet .. my kid has already spent 1 full day of boooooring with no electronics .. at my office doing tedious but simple tasks.
I don't have the patience to deal with the sass & non-listening for the entire summer. I already feel like a broken record. Thank goodness I have a boss that is ok with me bringing in my kid once in a while. I tell her that if she cannot behave for the other adults (like grandparents & sitters), then I have to watch her and the only way I can do that is if she comes to work. So no fun activities, or even "boring tv" or "boring sitting in the backyard reading" .. then she can tag along to work instead.
•    Anonymous said… Btw .. mine is 11.5 .. she has a "phone" - it doesn't have a phone but it had apps & internet & YouTube .. plus she has a d/s & a wiiu and we live super close o a library and within walking distance of a splash pad and a dollar store (so there's often cheap snacks/trinkets) ..  So a day at my office once in a while usually helps with the attitude for a while .. especially with the potential threat of all p.a. days sitting by the shredder  :p
•    Anonymous said… I have a nineteen year old who has Aspergers, he is wonderful, but his life is very so many ways
•    Anonymous said… I have twin daughters on the spectrum (HFA) - they are 11 now but when they were younger they did this and then they would answer each other in quotes- as if it were normal. They still go line for line when they find dialogue that amuses them
•    Anonymous said… I think support forum is needed. I feel awfully stressed when my son is this way too
•    Anonymous said… I use my friends sons who are similar ages to my Aspie son as a guide to filter out normal behaviour versus classic Aspie behaviour. To be honest I have found that in the main my son is just going through typical teenager angsts, Similar to what you have described above. Most of my parenting comes from trial and error with him, although his behaviour is mostly typical teenager stuff, the style of discipline he responds to is very different from the other children who are not on the spectrum. I always set clear instructions and give fore-warnings, for example I will go up 30 mins before he is due to turn of the computer and remind him that his time is up soon etc. I never leave it 5 mins before as I know it will cause a meltdown as the transition that quickly is too much for him. Sometimes we have to modify our parenting. Speak to your DR to see if you have any parenting classes for ASD or support groups in your area to get advice etc.
•    Anonymous said… I would honestly tell him how what he says makes you feel/ why you are asking him to do/ not do something. I spell it out for every kid I teach. It tends to help them understand better what I am asking of them and why. Less confusion, less resentment, and much less attitude when the realize I'm not just being a buzz kill because I can. I also dangle a reward for good behaviour. So usually it's at the end of the day they get free time/ a game/ to do something they want if it's possible. Then they tend to stay in line because that reward is strongly desired and they know how to get it.  It has worked for me for students with a range of challenges. I do treat them all like they have choices and the ability to think for themselves. Lots of kids that have given me feedback say that I don't treat them like kids because they feel respected and equal in the conversation. I put things in terms they understand but I talk to them like I would another adult I was having problems with. Often they have logic and reasoning skills good enough to understand at least that part of my explanation.
•    Anonymous said… In all senses I feel for you as I do with what's comin for me! I have 2 NT children who are 21 and 1! And one gorgeous lil aspie who's 6 x
•    Anonymous said… Mine is 6 and like this! God help me  🙏🏼
•    Anonymous said… My 9 yr old is about the sameeeee way
•    Anonymous said… Social behavior is often mimicked without really being understood. It could be a way of communicating even if unappropriate. Perhaps he does not understand how hurtful sarcasm can be.
•    Anonymous said… That's my 18 year old son, except he is verbally abusive. His Dad was no help throughout all of this. He never thought anything was different with him. So he let him run wild at his house.....We had 60/40 time and when my son turned 18. His dad kicked him out because he wanted to stay more with me. Now he is 18 he thinks I can't tell him what to do. It got so bad I had him baker acted. That is involuntary mental hospitalization. He was there for 2 day and now on meds. I'm praying to God. Good luck. I would do strong counseling.
•    Anonymous said… We looked at it as a positive in that at least he was trying to socialize instead of crawling in his own little world
•    Anonymous said… When my aspie daughter has a meltdown, the best way to communicate is through writing down how you feel . I often message my daughter on her phone or tablet, whilst she's upstairs , hiding from the world (she didn't learn to read or write until she was 8 - so I find when she messages me back an amazing feat). It seems easier for her too, to express how she feels without confrontation. The messages always end with 'I love you' x We've sorted many problems out in this way and on some occasions she will come and talk when she's ready x
•    Anonymous said… When our son was in preschool he would often recite lines from television programs in an attempt to communicate with his peers.

Post your comment below…

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...