Effective Behavior-Management Techniques for Kids on the Spectrum

"What do you do differently when disciplining a child with ASD relative to how you handle a 'typical' child?"

From the moment you heard about your child’s diagnosis of Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), you knew life would be more challenging for him or her than for “typical” children. So when you ask your “special needs” child to do something and it's not done, you let it go. Maybe you fear that what you would like your child to do, or not do, is impossible for him or her to achieve?

But the truth is this: If you feel that your child doesn't deserve discipline, it's like telling him or her, "I don't believe you can learn." And if YOU don't believe it, how will your youngster come to believe it?

What professionals call "behavior management" is not about punishing or demoralizing an AS or HFA youngster. Rather, it's a way to set boundaries and communicate expectations in a nurturing, loving way. Correcting your child’s actions, showing him or her what's right and wrong, what's acceptable and what's not, are the most important ways you can show your “special needs” child that you love and care.

Here are some special techniques to help moms and dads discipline a “special needs” youngster with Asperger’s or High-Functioning Autism:

1. Active ignoring is a good consequence for misbehavior meant to get your attention. This means not rewarding “bad behavior” with your attention – even if it's negative attention (e.g., scolding or yelling).

2. Due to developmental delays, kids with AS and HFA may require more exposure to discipline before they begin to understand expectations. You must follow through and apply discipline each time there is an incident in order to effectively send your message. The benefits of discipline are the same whether children have a developmental disorder like AS and HFA or not. In fact, children who have trouble learning respond very well to discipline and structure. But for this to work, moms and dads have to make discipline a priority and be consistent. Disciplining children is about establishing standards — whether that's setting a morning routine or dinnertime manners — and then teaching them how to meet those expectations.

3. Have faith in your youngster. If, after taking her first few steps, your toddler kept falling down, would you get her some crutches or a wheelchair? Of course not. So don't do the same with an AS or HFA youngster. Maybe your youngster can't put on his shoes the first time, or 20th time, but keeps trying. Encourage that! When you believe your youngster can do something, you empower him to reach that goal. The same is true for behavior.

4. Beware of the “over-protective parenting-style.” It’s easy for your whole life to revolve around parenting your “special needs” child. This is a lose-lose situation. You lose the joy of parenting, and your overly-protected child loses the ability to grow and learn.

5. Change (not “lower”) your standards. With an AS or HFA youngster, parents need to learn to live in the present. The milestones of your youngster’s life are less defined, and the future less predictable (though your youngster may surprise you). In the meantime, set the standards for your youngster at an appropriate level.

6. Choose a method of discipline appropriate to the level of the tantrum. Planned ignoring, giving a time-out, and removing privileges or activities important to the youngster are all potential options. AS and HFA kids often require a shorter time-out period and consequences given in smaller doses, especially where their attention spans are affected by their disorder.

7. Before you enter a store, transition from one activity to another, or approach a situation where behavior may deteriorate, discuss with your AS or HFA youngster what will happen, review the family rules, and remind your youngster of the consequences (both good and bad) of misbehavior. For young people on the autism spectrum, this information may need to be broken down into a few very simple instructions and repeated often.

8. Keep your behavior plan simple, and work on one challenge at a time. As your youngster meets one behavioral goal, she can strive for the next one.

==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Aspergers and HFA Children

9. Develop a plan of action before a behavioral incident occurs. Consider possible settings where you may face a tantrum or meltdown, your reaction, your youngster's needs and response, and the consequences you may use to stop or alter the behavior. AS and HFA kids may have unusual behavioral triggers, so it is important to really know your youngster when developing a plan.

10. Different doesn’t mean delicate. While it is true you have to change your expectations of your AS or HFA youngster, you don’t have to lower your standards of discipline. It’s tempting to get lax and let a “special needs” boy or girl get by with behaviors you wouldn’t tolerate in your other kids. He or she needs to know, early on, what behavior you expect. Many moms and dads wait too long to start behavior training. It’s much harder to redirect a 120 pound youngster than a 45 pounder. Like all kids, your AS or HFA youngster must be taught to adjust to family routines, to obey, and to manage himself or herself.

11. Different doesn’t mean substandard. In a “typical” kid’s logic, being different equates with being second-rate. This feeling may be more of a problem for siblings than for their developmentally-delayed brother or sister. Most kids measure their self-worth by how they believe others perceive them. Be sure your AS or HFA youngster’s siblings don’t fall into this “different equals bad” trap.

12. Don’t compare. Your AS or HFA youngster is special. Comparing him to “typical” children of the same age is not fair.

13. Stick to the same routine every day. For instance, if your youngster tends to have a meltdown in the afternoon after school, set a schedule for free time. Maybe he needs a snack first, and then do homework before playtime.

14. Give as much attention to positive, expected outcomes as you give to negative behaviors. This will help your youngster recognize what to do – as well as what not to do. For AS and HFA kids, it is even more important that the consequence or reward immediately follow the behavior to have the greatest effect and opportunity to teach.


15. Give your AS or HFA youngster choices, and be sure you like all the alternatives. Initially, you may have to guide her into making a choice, but just the ability to make a choice helps any child feel important. Also, be sure to present the choices in your youngster’s language (e.g., using pictures, pointing, reinforcing verbal instructions, etc.). The more you use this approach, the more you will learn about your youngster’s abilities, preferences, and receptive language skills at each stage of development.

16. Be confident about your parenting skills. Discipline is an exhausting responsibility. There will be great days when you're amazed by your youngster's progress, terrible days when it seems like all your hard work was wasted, and plateaus where it seems like further progress is unlikely. But always remember, behavior management is a challenge for all moms and dads, even those of children who are typically developing. So don't allow yourself to get discouraged! If you set an expectation in line with your youngster's abilities, and you believe she can accomplish it, odds are it will happen.

17. Be sure to praise and reward your youngster for EFFORT as well as “success” (e.g., if he refuses to poop in the toilet, he could be rewarded for using a potty chair near the toilet).

18. Help your youngster build a sense of responsibility. There is a natural tendency to want to rush in and do things for a developmentally-delayed youngster. For these kids, the principle of “teach them how to fish rather than give them a fish” applies doubly. The sense of accomplishment that accompanies being given responsibility raises the youngster’s self-esteem.

19. To understand your AS or HFA youngster's behavior, it helps to become an expert in autism spectrum disorders. So try to learn as much about the unique medical, behavioral, and psychological factors that affect your child’s development. Read up on the disorder and ask the doctor about anything you don't understand. Also talk to members of your youngster's care team and other moms and dads (especially those with children who have similar issues) to help determine if your youngster's challenging behavior is typical or related to his individual challenges.

20. Encourage accomplishment by reminding your youngster about what she can earn for meeting the goals you've set (e.g., getting stickers, screen time, etc.).

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers and HFA Teens

21. When you catch your youngster doing something right, praise her for it. All children naturally want to please their moms and dads. So, by getting credit for doing something right, they will likely want to do it again.

22. After correcting your youngster for doing something wrong, offer a “substitute behavior.” For example, if he is hitting you to get your attention, work on replacing that with an appropriate behavior such as getting your attention by tapping your shoulder.

23. Provide lots and lots of structure. AS and HFA kids need developmentally- appropriate structure, but it requires sensitivity on your part to figure out what is needed when. Watch your youngster, not the calendar. Try to get inside her head.

24. Always communicate your expectations in a concrete, simple way. For children with AS and HFA, this may require more than just telling them. You may need to use pictures, role playing, or gestures to be sure your youngster knows what he is working toward. Explain as simply as possible what behaviors you want to see. Since consistency is key, make sure babysitters, siblings, other family members, and educators are all on board with your messages.

25. Not every AS or HFA kid responds to natural consequences, so you might have to match the consequence to your youngster's values (e.g., a youngster who may like to be alone might consider a traditional "time-out" rewarding; instead, take away a favorite toy or video game for a period of time).

26. Value your youngster rather than focusing on the disorder. Practice attachment parenting to the highest degree that you can without shortchanging other members of the family. Feeling loved and valued from attachment parenting helps an AS or HFA youngster cope with the lack of a particular ability.

27. View all problematic behaviors as “signals of needs.” Everything an AS or HFA youngster does tells you something about what he or she needs.

28. If your youngster is too aggressive when playing with other children, don't stop the play altogether. Instead, work with your youngster to limit the physicality of the play. Use discipline where necessary (e.g., time-outs, enforced turn-taking, rules like "no touching"), and provide rewards when your expectations are met.

29. Reset your anger buttons. Your AS or HFA youngster will inevitably do some things that will frustrate the hell out of you, but getting angry with him or her will only throw gas on the fire. So, when you catch yourself starting to get angry – YOU take a tie-out. If you’re still angry after the time-out – don’t show it! Put on a “poker face.”

30. Can another mom or dad relate to the trouble you are having with your AS or HFA child? Sharing experiences will give you a yardstick by which to measure your expectations and determine which behaviors are related to your youngster's diagnosis, and which are purely developmental. If you're having trouble finding moms and dads of children with similar difficulties, consider joining an online support or advocacy group. Once you know what behaviors are representative of your youngster's age and disorder, you can set realistic behavioral expectations.

How to Figure-out Why Your Aspergers or HFA Child Behaves the Way She Does 

AS and HFA children need discipline, limits and structure. When they can predict what will happen next in their day, they feel confident and safe. Sure, they will test these boundaries, but it's up to parents to affirm that these standards are important and let their “special needs” youngster know that they believe he or she can meet them.

Young people on the autism spectrum require the same firm structure and guidance as their siblings and peers. While the form and degree of the discipline may differ, the basic rules still apply. Behavior must be addressed as it happens. Consequences must be meaningful and effective. And parents must follow through each time. This requires planning and communication between both parents and kids before an incident occurs. Consistent application of methods over time will produce improved behavior with less effort.

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