Why "Traditional Discipline" Doesn't Work for Many Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“Why is there a general consensus that children on the autism spectrum (specifically on the high end) should not receive ‘traditional’ discipline that works with most other children? What am I missing here?”

Traditional discipline may fail to produce the desired results for kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s, primarily because they are unable to appreciate the consequences of their actions. Consequently, punitive measures are apt to exacerbate the type of behavior the punishment is intended to reduce, while at the same time increasing the anxiety-level of the child.

This paradox is due to some of the traits of the disorder, specifically the following:
  1. Executive dysfunction: An impairment in the higher-order processes that enable us to plan, sequence, initiate, and sustain our behavior towards some goal, incorporating feedback and making adjustments along the way.
  2. Theory of mind deficits: This is an inability to recognize that other people have thoughts, feelings and intentions that are different to one's own, and an inability to intuitively guess what these may be.
  3. Weak central coherence: The inability to bring together various details from perception to make a meaningful whole.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these deficits:

1. Executive function can be defined as the way in which people monitor and control their thoughts and actions. It is actually a broad category that includes such processes as working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. “Inhibitory control” is one aspect of executive function, and is the ability to restrain (or inhibit) potentially interfering responses and to self-regulate in certain situations.

2. Theory of mind is the ability that we all have in order to make sense of the world we live in. Every person's thoughts, knowledge, beliefs and desires make up his or her own unique theory of mind. From the age of around 4 years, “typical” kids understand that other people have thoughts, knowledge, beliefs and desires that will influence their behavior. However, children with HFA and Asperger’s appear to have some difficulties conceptualizing and appreciating the thoughts and feelings of others (i.e., lack of empathy).

It is this “mind-blindness” that may impair these special needs kids to be able to relate to - and understand the behaviors of - others. Mind-blindness also means the child has difficulty in distinguishing whether someone's actions are intentional or accidental. By failing to account for other’s perspectives, children on the spectrum tend to misinterpret their messages. Many of the social-skills deficits observed in children with HFA and Asperger’s may have their genesis in the lack of ability to decipher subtle meaning from the environment.

3. Central coherence is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes. However, children on the autism spectrum appear to have a heightened focus on details rather than wholes (a cognitive style termed “weak central coherence”). This is the reason why some kids with HFA and Asperger’s have hypersensitive sensory perceptions. The inability to hold information in mind in order to use it later in other tasks is what causes the child to lack central coherence. A lack of cognitive central coherence can easily cause the child to miss the importance of the subtle cues that create meaning in a social context.

How parents can help:

Consider maintaining a diary of your youngster's behavior in order to uncover patterns or triggers. Recurring “bad” behavior may be indicative of a youngster taking some satisfaction in receiving a “desired” response from parents, siblings, peers - and even teachers.

For example, a student on the autism spectrum may come to understand that hurting another student in class will result in his being removed from class (aside from the associated consequence to his peer). The solution may not be most effectively rooted in punishing the youngster for the behavior, or even attempting to explain the situation from the perspective of his injured peer, but by treating the root cause behind the motivation for the misbehavior. In this example, can the youngster be made more comfortable in class so that he will not want to leave it?

One of the means to achieve this may be to focus on the positive. Praise for good behavior, and reinforcement by way of something such as a Reward Book, can help. Positive verbal cues delivered in a calm tone are likely to elicit more beneficial responses than harsher verbal warnings (which may be effective on kids without an autism spectrum disorder).

When giving directions to stop a type of misbehavior, they should be couched as positives rather than negatives. For example, rather than telling the youngster to stop hitting his brother with the ruler, he should be directed to put the ruler down, and then receive verbal praise for following the parent’s request (e.g., “Thank you for doing as I asked. That’s you being respectful of others”).

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

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