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The "Structure-Dependent" Child on the Autism Spectrum

Having a set of rules to follow on a day-to-day basis is the most important issue for an Aspergers or high-functioning autistic (HFA) child who is “structure-dependent.” Once this child has a list of DOs and DONTs to follow, there tends to be few concerns except in areas where the parent has not yet established rules, in which case the structure-dependent youngster becomes confused.

Any environment (e.g., home, classroom) where there is lax structure will be a difficult one for the structured-dependent youngster. This child needs rules in order to function and will probably create his own set of rules if parents and teachers don't provide them, which may create problems since the child’s rules will probably not match the adult’s expectations.

The structure-dependent youngster respects authority figures and does well when it is very clear who makes the rules and enforces them. This youngster often does very well in school, but may have behavioral problems at home if the rules are not as clear as they are in the classroom. It is not unusual for moms and dads of this child to be quite surprised to hear how well behaved she is at school.

There are two types of structure-dependent children with ASD:
  1. The “acting-out” type
  2. The “acting-in” type

The “Acting-out” Type--

The acting-out youngster is often seen as a teacher's delight because he is rarely a discipline problem, but at home, this child’s behavior can be totally out of control (e.g., bossy, controlling, tantrums, meltdowns, yelling, arguing etc.). The key to recognizing this type of child is the behavior differences between school and home. If he experiences behavioral problems at school AND at home, then he is not a structure-dependent youngster.

The "acting-out" structure-dependent youngster:
  • can be somewhat naive and taken advantage of since he doesn’t stand up for himself
  • can become distressed by peers who do not follow the rules
  • doesn't want anyone to be upset with him
  • is often very cooperative with authority figures, sometimes to a fault
  • likes to please others
  • often becomes the "rule cop" in the classroom
  • tends to monitor other peers’ and will "tell on them" in they break a rule
  • tries to "fly under the radar"

This child has some anxiety issues, but not to the point where it is overwhelming for him. He manages his anxiety by following the rules – and making sure others do as well. Problems only occur for this child when rules are absent or vague, or when the adult in charge lacks authority in his opinion.

How parents and teachers can help the “acting-out” child:

Written rules, routines and schedules are some of the techniques used to create proper structure for this youngster – no matter how small the issue might be. There is no such thing as a situation that is too small to have rule. Even the “little things” need rules (e.g., going to a store, taking a bath, sharpening a pencil, raising your hand, etc.). Parents and teachers should supply a set of rules regarding appropriate behaviors to be demonstrated in each situation. Also, be sure to explain why there is a rule for such and such. This will help the child to generalize these skills later on.

Teachers who run highly structured classrooms may not need to do much of this. Instead, they may want to help the structure-dependent youngster be less rule-bound and have a greater tolerance for ambiguity.

The “Acting-in” Type--

This type of structure-dependent youngster is similar to the one above, except his behavior is good at home AND at school. He is also rule-bound with rules for everything, but unlike the acting-out child, this child has learned to control tantrums and anger – sometimes too much – in all situations. He views his parent, who has created many rules for him to follow at home, as an authority figure just like his teacher. There are very few situations that don't have rules for him to abide by. However, this child can be obedient to a fault, perfectionistic, obsessive-compulsive, and/or depressed. Thus, he needs to become more flexible.

How parents and teachers can help the “acting-in” child:

The adults need not worry about rules with this child; rather, a crash course in expressing emotions, as well as flexibility to help her see the world as less black-and-white would be helpful. This child needs to learn more about the “reasons behind actions” and how the world works, with less emphasis on unwavering compliance. Without throwing out the rules altogether, help this child to develop decision-making and problem-solving skills so that she can become a more independent thinker.

Understanding the "Easily Annoyed" Child on the Autism Spectrum

“I have a 9 year old son with high functioning autism (Asperger syndrome). My main issue with him is that he is sooooo easily annoyed at EVERY THING! Including ME! If I don't hear his question the first time and say, "What did you say?" …I get, "Nothing, never mind" (big huff and rolling eyes). If his 5 year old sister is crying or getting into his stuff, it is MAJOR drama (screaming at her, slamming doors, etc. etc.). If I am not walking around smiling with sunshine shooting out of my butt (sorry for the metaphor), he automatically thinks I'm angry about something and says, “What's wrong?" I say, "Nothing..." and then it is the whole, “Whatever, never mind.” It's not just the rotten attitude, but his being chronically annoyed. He can't find his shoes, and I get, "arrrgghhhh, I can NEVER find my shoes!!!!" (huff, slam door, and more arrrgghhhh). The toys that he has all lined-up in a row don’t look right, the pants he wants to wear are dirty, his sister doesn't want to watch what he wants to watch – anything and everything! Sometimes I think he needs to be on some kind of medication. We've tried counseling... no help there. Is this just his personality? Is it a symptom of autism? He doesn’t behave this way at school – just at home. I am at my wits END!”

Indeed, children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are often easily annoyed by others. They are quickly overwhelmed by minimal change and highly sensitive to environmental stimuli. They like everything to stay the same – even their parent’s mood and their sibling’s behavior (which is obviously an unreasonable expectation)). They are anxious and tend to worry obsessively when they do not know what to expect. Stress, fatigue and sensory-overload can throw them off balance. As a result, they may seem to be upset about “everything.”

In addition, it is not uncommon for AS and HFA children to behave fairly well at school, yet act-out at home. However, just because the acting-out occurs at home does not necessarily mean the “cause” of the behavior lies there. Many AS and HFA students find school very stressful, but they tend to keep their emotions bottled-up until they get home. Most young people on the autism spectrum do not display the body language and facial expressions you would expect to see when a “typical” youngster is feeling a stressed or angry. While kids on the spectrum may appear relatively calm at school, they are often experiencing very different emotions under the surface – and may release those pent-up emotions in the safety of their home.

When your AS or HFA youngster is acting-out due to being annoyed by someone or something, what is your initial response? Do you become anxious and give-in to avoid conflict? Do you say nothing and hope that it will pass? Do you get angry yourself and start shouting? Maybe your answer is, “All three depending on the day!” Welcome to the club! Trying to help an annoyed, angry child to calm down – time after time, day in and day out – is exhausting and stressful.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

The adamant expression of annoyance in the form of anger serves a purpose. It lets you know that something is wrong in the same way that burning your finger lets you know that the oven is hot. It hits rapidly, and the reaction is instantaneous. Similarly, for example, your youngster is upset because he can’t watch the TV show he wants to – and BAM – the parent has a fight on her hands. Keeping this in mind, let’s switch gears and get into problem-solving mode…

How can parents help the “easily annoyed” AS or HFA child? Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. The first step in helping your child overcome this problem is to change your reaction to his behavior. If you give-in, or say nothing, or get angry, then your child will know that he can push your buttons – and that it works. He knows that if he can wear you down by complaining or getting angry, he will get his way in the end. Instead of being held accountable, he has figured out a way to avoid negative consequences. Therefore, parents need to learn to overcome their “knee-jerk” reactions of giving-in, ignoring misbehavior, or getting angry.

2. Do not simply assume that there is nothing to be annoyed about. Your youngster may not be wrong for feeling this way. There may be some justification for her frustration, even if the behavior is not justified. If your youngster can’t be civil in explaining her annoyance, then say something such as, “I understand you feel annoyed. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then leave it alone until she has calmed down. If she starts acting-out her frustration (e.g., cussing, throwing things, hitting, etc.), then that is when you want to address the behavior. You can’t control the way your youngster feels about things, but you can give her consequences and hold her accountable for acting-out. It’s normal for all children to be annoyed from time to time. It’s not the feeling of frustration that is the problem, it is the resulting behavior. So, don’t punish feelings, only punish misbehavior.

3. Consider whether or not a consequence is really necessary. Let’s say a 10-year-old boy is annoyed and frustrated about something, so he mutters something under his breath, walks into his bedroom and slams the door. When you look at it objectively, a youngster who is working on his frustration has actually handled it fairly well – in this case, going to his room to calm down. In a situation like this, you may decide to waive the consequence. While different parents have different rules about what is allowed and what is not, there should be some latitude to allow your youngster to express frustration as long as property is not damaged and no one gets hurt.

4. Sometimes, a child’s frustration is caused by very real and inescapable problems in his life. Not all frustration is misplaced – and often it is a healthy, natural response to these difficulties. There is a cultural belief that every problem has a solution, and it adds to the parent’s frustration to find out that this is not always the case. The best attitude to bring to such a situation, then, is NOT to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how the frustrated child handles and faces the problem. Help your child to make a plan for those occasions when he is annoyed and irritated, and help him check his progress along the way. If your child can approach his problems with his best intentions and make a serious attempt to face it head-on, he will be less likely to lose patience and fall into all-or-nothing thinking, even if the problem does not get solved right away.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

5. Parents need to understand that the AS or HFA child typically has a very low toleration for frustration. This frustration comes from a lack of understanding of his feelings. He is unable to identify and express what he is feeling, so he lumps all the “bad” feelings together. Moms and dads witness the overflow of “bad” feelings that come out all at once. It's important that you don't take them personally, even when they seem as though they are directed at you. A young person on the autism spectrum wants to tell his parents what is on his mind, but most of the time he does not know how to say it properly, or he misinterpreted his thoughts and feelings altogether.

6. Often times, when a child is easily annoyed, it is because she has poor problem-solving skills. She has not learned to solve her underlying problems in healthy ways, so she yells, throws things, and calls people names. One of your most important jobs is to give your child some problem-solving tools. The development of problem-solving skills should include your AS or HFA youngster as a contributor in planning and execution. Thus, be sure to include her input in all the suggestions listed below. The ideas described are something you are doing WITH your youngster, rather than TO her. In order to help the easily annoyed child, parents need a thorough understanding of their child’s perspective. Any approach to correcting frustration and resultant acting-out behavior that does not include the youngster is not going to have long-term benefits.

Here are some ways to assist your AS or HFA child in learning a few problem-solving skills:
  • Enhance sensitivity to verbal and nonverbal social cues through games and role play, teaching your youngster to identify social cues in body language and pitch of voice.
  • Have your youngster make a video of his own nonverbal cues, and then have him explain his feelings on the basis of cues demonstrated in the video (e.g., hand gestures, facial expressions, voice intonation, and other indicators of social intent).
  • Help your youngster identify his own feeling states through self-report and observation.
  • Help your youngster to assess likely outcomes of potential responses and to select a response that can be initiated given the limitations of the situation. Compared to non-frustrated kids, frustrated ones tend to evaluate pro-social responses less favorably. Thus, they are not behaving a certain way to purposely hurt those around them, rather they are simply making decisions based on social skills deficits.
  • Help your youngster to assign meaning to social cues. This step is necessary because easily annoyed, frustrated kids commonly interpret neutral interactions as threatening – and then respond defensively. Unlike “typical” kids, AS and HFA kids do not intuitively know how to exhibit socially acceptable behavior, and the level of their required assistance depends on the social supports they have previously encountered.
  • Help your youngster to attend to social cues that are often missed or misinterpreted.
  • Help your youngster to develop ideas about how to respond to each social circumstance he encounters. This step is necessary because, compared with “typical” kids, AS and HFA kids identify fewer alternatives and seem unaware of the various options that may be open to them when confronted by a social problem. These “special needs” kids need help identifying their options and possible outcomes (this is why constantly telling them what they are doing wrong does not increase the likelihood of improved future performance).
  • Your youngster should learn to identify and classify social cues by friendly, neutral, and hostile categories of intent. The youngster can practice by assuming the roles of his siblings and/or peers in disputes.

If the AS or HFA child is exhibiting threatening behavior and seems unable to control it, then getting him to work with a professional is the best approach. A qualified therapist can provide coping techniques for the youngster to deal with his tendency to be annoyed by others and the resultant frustration and acting-out. In addition, the therapist can provide you with valuable insight and tools for helping your youngster deal with his negative feelings.

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

•    Anonymous said…  Almost word for word what I say/do when my Aspie son thinks he can get away with that type of behavior.
•    Anonymous said… Anxiety is also a good thing to learn about. This will probably drive a number of his behaviours. Meditation and mindfulness are great for both of you! Plus he most likely is doing some of these things at school - they just have structure and support staff to manage his needs. It's 100 times harder at home. Like my sister said, moan and chat when not there because then you have the energy to manage when it doesn't go right. Rob long (ed psyc) says "calm when they get it wrong, happy when they get it right"
•    Anonymous said… At that age they get a huge testerone increase . Have a Google of it and see if that helps explain his change in behaviour.
•    Anonymous said… Brilliant article
•    Anonymous said… Find a therapist who specializes in Behaviour Modification Techniques ... PAY THE MONEY TO LEARN It and most importantly ... STICK TO IT! Temple Grandin is th best expert on Aspergers and Autism and she has spoken frequently on the need for manners, rules and good behaviour for children on the spectrum.
•    Anonymous said… Firstly, I would remove the bedroom door, and explain that when he can be trusted with it by showing some self-control he may get it back. We have done this at our house. He can choose to control himself, but he is controlling you , as he seems to have you all walking around on eggshells, so the anger is beneficial to him. He needs to lose something, such as a privilege, when he is being obnoxious. As a boy, he is only going to get bigger, stronger, and harder to train. Teach him more acceptable methods of expressing displeasure, such as just telling you he is upset. Then when he does it, thank him for using words instead of anger, and try to reach a compromise. Maybe you could make some house rules and post them for all the kids, such as: No door slamming, Work out problems calmly, Don't touch other people's things without asking permission, etc. And try to get him into the tub two or three times a week and put a cup or two of Epsom salts in there as the water runs. The magnesium helps anxiety tremendously.
•    Anonymous said… I can't tell you what a miracle biofeedback was for us. He can control his physical response to stress and anxiety.
•    Anonymous said… I get the same thing from my Aspie and she tells me I am screaming when I am not at all it is annoying to hear that stuff all the time
•    Anonymous said… I would say anxiety. That's how my husband and oldest son project their anxiety. The right meds for both of them helps with that so so much.
•    Anonymous said… I'm really not having a go at all but some of this ( and I mean some not all) can be solved by very strict parenting - not a day without the house rules... Nothing. Hard work but you will get there... It's very hard to differentiate between what is truly aspergers behaviour and what is a naughty child... The latter needs telling. Aspergers isn't a licence for bad behaviour non stop. I have been through it with my son but honestly you will get through to the other side by just sticking to your guns.
•    Anonymous said… It is expectation. In their all or nthing thinking, They expect you to be a certain way. Perform to a certain level. Respond immediately. Know everything. Be everything. When you fall short of their expectations, as you invariably will, you get the eye roll and huffing and puffing. Teach them that people don't operate at their level. That they can and will do it their way, in their own time. Just because he expects it does not mean it's going to happen.
•    Anonymous said… It is like reading the story of my 12 year old! Sigh.
•    Anonymous said… it is the autism, my son has same diagnosis. there are many tricks to helping him. these kids benefit from programs that teach them how to read body language. set s place for his shoes and make sure they are put in same place for him til he gets used to doing it for himself. allow him to have his own tv solves the tv issue. and with my son i just have to do his laundry regular esp. if he has a fave shirt he wants to wear everyday cause it has to get washed after every use, they can be OCD about a lot of things! sometimes you just got to see the humour in it.
•    Anonymous said… Keep smiling keep loving him xx have a good moan and chat when he's at school xx surround yourself with positive people! You are not alone in this xx
•    Anonymous said… My 14 year old! The constant mumbling "whatever, you don't care" under his breath when I don't hear what he said to me or he doesn't think I'm interested in what he says. Everyday! I think I just expect to hear it now on a daily basis. Some days it's not as easy to tolerate.
•    Anonymous said… My 9 year old until I insisted on putting him in lexapro . He's a different person now. The psychiatrist wanted him in mood stabilizers . They didn't work he was angry then at times a zombie and gained weight which caused more problems . Find a good Psychiatrist. Good luck it's a game of trial and error. It's so exhausting and emotionally draining . Mine is also 9
•    Anonymous said… My daughter does some of the same things. I do not allow her to continue with the behavior. I tell her yes things are going to agitate her but she can't control other people only herself. If she is agitated I tell her to remove herself from the situation of possible.
•    Anonymous said… My daughter is on a natural supplement called GABA recommended by her therapist. It is amazing and helps with the anxiety.
•    Anonymous said… my poor lad spent quite a lot of his time in bedroom when younger. It's v tricky to know what's right but my boy is 14 now and just fabulous!
•    Anonymous said… My sentiments exactly. My son (not an aspie) has been in therapy since he was 8 years old (he's 18 now) and it did help some.. but since he has been on Paxil he is just feeling so much better.. we are getting to see the real kid
•    Anonymous said… My son has always reminded me of an old curmudgeon. LOL! Part of it is from anxiety.
•    Anonymous said… Not saying this is the case in every family, BUT kids do mirror how their parents act in any given situation. How the parent reacts in a stressful or bad situation is important. Are Mom and Dad yelling and screaming at eachother or the kids or they acting like the adult and staying calm ? I think all kids will see how far they can push you,but with our kids in the spectrum it may be other triggers setting them off 9 times out of 10 and it's your job as their parent to help them through it.
•    Anonymous said… Now if you try to hold his hand he digs his nails in you, if you hold his arm he yells your hurting him which we are not. Prior to him moving in my home last year I never had issues with him.
•    Anonymous said… Pathological demand avoidance after all these years my daughter is finally diagnosed she is now 40 years old!!!
•    Anonymous said… Sounds like A 7 old i know saying "Life is horrible" etc for any "good" reason
•    Anonymous said… Sounds like my 5 yr old grandson who hasn't be diagnosed but is being evaluated for it, he doesn't act like this at school either. His 2 yr old sister shares the same attitude so I'm questioning why do they share the same type behavior? My grandson growls to express his anger a lot. I discipline him as if he is a just a normal child but with a slight difference bcz he needs to learn it's not ok to hurt people and the fact I don't know if he's autistic or not. He scratches the paint off my wall in time out. I figure if he can behave at school, he can behave here or at home.
•    Anonymous said… Sounds like my 6 nearly 7 year old son
•    Anonymous said… Sounds like my hubby and daughter LOL!
•    Anonymous said… That's like the majority of 14 year olds!... It's up to you to decide whether you accept it or not...not much to do with aspergers imho
•    Anonymous said… The therapy recommended for my daughter was cognitive behavioral therapy. In one year her tantrums and anxiety have decreased dramatically.
•    Anonymous said… This sounds exactly like my 8 year old daughter.
•    Anonymous said… Took him to an air show yesterday and spent most of the time disciplining him. to stay side by side as we walked, disturbing other people, asking for food or to buy him stuff bcz I wasn't paying the high prices. He makes up his own jibberish language (which I used to do and a young child), he is impulsive(what comes to mind he does-something I used to do).
•    Anonymous said… Very difficult when this is your everyday, my easily upset one is an adult now and manages himself better , he really didn`t know anyone else was upset by his actions or why they would be. Empathy is not his big thing I have had to learn to love him in spite of his behavior.
•    Anonymous said… We are living this nightmare now with our son. He is 15. Oddly enough when he was younger he rarely got upset. It wasn't until the end of 7th grade that the anger issues began to show and now its a common occurrence. Just dealing with a teen is hard enough but then compound that with Aspergers. It's exhausting! We recently turned to a psychiatrist and counseling. Too early to tell if it has helped...he is more aware and is trying to make a conscious effort to not get angry. Its a start (:
•    Anonymous said… Wow I thought I was reading my own story. I have a 8 year old high functioning Aspergers who is exactly this story. Yesterday he totally lost control and became violent. Later he broke down crying and asked for a cuddle. He revealed that all his friends for dumping him and he felt different confused and that no one understood him. As devastating and heartbreaking as that was for us to hear at least I know he trusts me enough to have those tough conversations. Even at 8 he loves his cuddles. I don't think anyway has the right I think we just work it out along the way as every child is different there sensory needs are different and the way the my respond is obviously different. Hang in there stay calm and take a breath
•    Anonymous said… You pick and choose your battles and keep moving forward
•    Anonymous said…Oh you just wrote about my son. He is 19 now. But still. Cracked it yesterday cause one of his computer leads got tangled - they seem to have a very short fuse.
*    Anonymous said... My son gets frustrated to the point that he always seems upset or angry. He will give up on things if they don't go his way without even putting any more effort into it. I've dealt with it for so long that I just tend to go on with my day and not let it get me down. I've tried to explain to him how to persevere and get something accomplished, or how to fix his problem. He tends to be very stubborn and often doesn't listen to that either. It does wear out a parent! He is 19 and done with school now, so this is also a hard transition time. I'm hopeful that eventually he will outgrow the teen years and maybe develop a more laid back attitude toward life.
*    Anonymous said... My son who is also 9 is the same way and also has very high anxiety. His doctor put him on a low dose Zoloft for the anxiety because it was affecting everything he did and it's done wonders for his anger as well.

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Aspergers Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns


My eldest boy J___ who is now 5-years-old was diagnosed with Aspergers last July. We did 6 months of intense therapy with a child psychologist and a speech therapist before we moved over to Ghana. J___ has settled in well. He has adjusted to school very well and the teachers who are also expats from England are also dealing with him extremely well.

My current issue is his anger. At the moment if the situations are not done exactly his way he has a meltdown. Symptoms are: Extreme ear piercing screaming, intense crying, to falling down on the floor saying he is going to die. I have tried to tell him to breathe but his meltdown is so intense that his body just can't listen to words. I then have asked him to go to his room to calm down. He sometimes (very rarely) throws things across the room, but does not physically hurt anyone. As I have two younger boys (ages 1 and 3) I still need to be aware of their safety. I then managed to put J___ in his room with the help of a nanny. He throws all blankets off the bed (which doesn't bother me) and then hides under them. Today I waited 10 minutes then went upstairs to talk to him, but he then started again with the extreme crying and screaming at me. It took him over an hour to calm down fully. The situation arose as the nanny and I were helping him to make muffins and the nanny put a spoonful of the mixture into the muffin tin.

I am requesting your help on ways to calm him down in a manner that is acceptable. He is getting too old to be put in the "thinking corner/naughty corner" and I am a petite person so I'm not going to physically put him there. I am finding his resistance at the moment is a lot with me and his father.

I have structures in place by visual laminated pictures of how the morning is run and the structure before bed. This works fine, but like I said when things aren't done exactly his way, he can have an outburst in a flash. Please give me some strategies on how I can better manage these meltdowns.

FYI - he was diagnosed on the border on the CARS model. I have found a qualified speech therapist who is from England which we go to once a week (but as it is summer break we don't go back to August) to assist with his pragmatic language.


Problems related to stress and anxiety are common in kids with Aspergers (high-functioning autism). In fact, this combination has been shown to be one of the most frequently observed comorbid symptoms in these children. They are often triggered by or result directly from environmental stressors, such as:
  • a sense of loss of control
  • an inherent emotional vulnerability
  • difficulty in predicting outcomes
  • having to face challenging social situations with inadequate social awareness
  • misperception of social events
  • rigidity in moral judgment that results from a concrete sense of social justice violations.
  • social problem-solving skills
  • social understanding

The stress experienced by kids with Aspergers may manifest as withdrawal, reliance on obsessions related to circumscribed interests or unhelpful rumination of thoughts, inattention, and hyperactivity, although it may also trigger aggressive or oppositional defiant behavior, often captured by therapists as tantrums, rage, and “meltdowns”.

Educators, therapists, and moms/dads often report that kids with Aspergers exhibit a sudden onset of aggressive or oppositional behavior. This escalating sequence is similar to what has been described in kids with Aspergers, and seems to follow a three-stage cycle as described below. Although non-Aspergers kids may recognize and react to the potential for behavioral outbursts early in the cycle, many kids and teenagers with Aspergers often endure the entire cycle, unaware that they are under stress (i.e., kids with Aspergers do not perceive themselves as having problems of conduct, aggression, hyperactivity, withdrawal, etc.).

Because of the combination of innate stress and anxiety and the difficulty of kids with Aspergers to understand how they feel, it is important that those who work and live with them understand the cycle of tantrums, rage, and meltdowns, and the interventions that can be used to promote self-calming, self-management, and self-awareness as a means of preventing or decreasing the severity of behavior problems.


The Cycle of Meltdowns

Meltdowns typically occur in three stages that can be of variable length. These stages are (1) the “acting-in” stage, (2) the “acting-out” stage, and (3) the recuperation stage.

The “Acting-In” Stage

The “acting-in” stage is the initial stage of a tantrum, rage, or meltdown. During this stage, kids and teenagers with Aspergers exhibit specific behavior changes that may not seem to be related directly to a meltdown. The behaviors may seem minor. That is, kids with Aspergers may clear their throats, lower their voices, tense their muscles, tap their foot, grimace, or otherwise indicate general discontent. Furthermore, somatic complaints also may occur during the “acting-in” stage. Kids also may engage in behaviors that are more obvious, including emotionally or physically withdrawing, or verbally or physically affecting someone else. For example, the youngster may challenge the classroom structure or authority by attempting to engage in a power struggle.

During this stage, it is imperative that a mother/father or educator intervene without becoming part of a struggle. The following interventions can be effective in stopping the cycle of tantrums, rage, and meltdowns – and they are invaluable in that they can help the youngster regain control with minimal adult support:

1. Intervention #1 involves displaying a chart or visual schedule of expectations and events, which can provide security to kids and teenagers with Aspergers who typically need predictability. This technique also can be used as advance preparation for a change in routine. Informing kids of schedule changes can prevent anxiety and reduce the likelihood of tantrums, rage, and meltdowns (e.g., the youngster who is signaling frustration by tapping his foot may be directed to his schedule to make him aware that after he completes two more problems he gets to work on a topic of special interest with a peer). While running errands, moms and dads can use support from routine by alerting the youngster in the “acting-in” stage that their next stop will be at a store the youngster enjoys.

2. Intervention #2 involves helping the youngster to focus on something other than the task or activity that seems to be upsetting. One type of redirection that often works well when the source of the behavior is a lack of understanding is telling the youngster that he can “cartoon” the situation to figure out what to do. Sometimes cartooning can be postponed briefly. At other times, the youngster may need to cartoon immediately.

3. Intervention #3 involves making the Aspergers child’s school environment as stress-free as possible by providing him/her with a “home-base.”. A home-base is a place in the school where the child can “escape.” The home-base should be quiet with few visual or activity distractions, and activities should be selected carefully to ensure that they are calming rather than alerting. In school, resource rooms or counselors' offices can serve as a home-base. The structure of the room supersedes its location. At home, the home-base may be the youngster's room or an isolated area in the house. Regardless of its location, however, it is essential that the home-base is viewed as a positive environment. Home-base is not “timeout” or an escape from classroom tasks or chores. The youngster takes class work to home-base, and at home, chores are completed after a brief respite in the home-base. Home-base may be used at times other than during the “acting-in” stage (e.g., at the beginning of the day, a home base can serve to preview the day's schedule, introduce changes in the typical routine, and ensure that the youngster's materials are organized or prime for specific subjects). At other times, home-base can be used to help the youngster gain control after a meltdown.

4. Intervention #4 involves paying attention to cues from the Aspergers child. When the youngster with Aspergers begins to exhibit a precursor behavior (e.g., throat clearing, pacing), the educator uses a nonverbal signal to let the youngster know that she is aware of the situation (e.g., the educator can place herself in a position where eye contact with the youngster can be achieved, or an agreed-upon “secret” signal, such as tapping on a desk, may be used to alert the youngster that he is under stress). A “signal” may be followed by a stress relief strategy (e.g., squeezing a stress ball). In the home or community, moms and dads may develop a signal (i.e., a slight hand movement) that the mother/father uses with their youngster is in the “acting-in” stage.

5. Intervention #5 involves removing a youngster, in a non-punitive fashion, from the environment in which he is experiencing difficulty. At school, the youngster may be sent on an errand. At home, the youngster may be asked to retrieve an object for a mother/father. During this time the youngster has an opportunity to regain a sense of calm. When he returns, the problem has typically diminished in magnitude and the grown-up is on hand for support, if needed.

6. Intervention #6 is a strategy where the educator moves near the youngster who is engaged in the target behavior. Moms/dads and teachers move near the Aspergers youngster. Often something as simple as standing next to the youngster is calming. This can easily be accomplished without interrupting an ongoing activity (e.g., the educator who circulates through the classroom during a lesson).

7. Intervention #7 is a technique in which the mother/father or educator merely walks with the youngster without talking. Silence on the part of the grown-up is important, because a youngster with Aspergers in the “acting-in” stage will likely react emotionally to any adult statement, misinterpreting it or rephrasing it beyond recognition. On this walk the youngster can say whatever he wishes without fear of discipline or reprimand. In the meantime, the grown-up should be calm, show as little reaction as possible, and never be confrontational.

8. Intervention #8 is a technique that is effective when the youngster is in the midst of the “acting-in” stage because of a difficult task, and the mother/father or educator thinks that the youngster can complete the activity with support. The mother/father or educator offers a brief acknowledgement that supports the verbalizations of the youngster and helps him complete his task. For instance, when working on a math problem the youngster begins to say, “This is too hard.” Knowing the youngster can complete the problem, the educator refocuses the youngster's attention by saying, “Yes, the problem is difficult. Let's start with number one.” This brief direction and support may prevent the youngster from moving past the “acting-in” stage.

When selecting an intervention during the “acting-in” stage, it is important to know the youngster, as the wrong technique can escalate rather than deescalate a behavior problem. Further, although interventions at this stage do not require extensive time, it is advisable that grown-ups understand the events that precipitate the target behaviors so that they can (1) be ready to intervene early, or (2) teach kids and teenagers strategies to maintain behavior control during these times. Interventions at this stage are merely calming. They do not teach kids to recognize their own frustration or provide a means of handling it. Techniques to accomplish these goals are discussed later.

The “Acting-Out” Stage

If behavior is not diffused during the “acting-in” stage, the youngster or adolescent may move to the “acting-out” stage. At this point, the youngster is dis-inhibited and acts impulsively, emotionally, and sometimes explosively. These behaviors may be externalized (i.e., screaming, biting, hitting, kicking, destroying property, or self-injury) or internalized (i.e., withdrawal). Meltdowns are not purposeful, and once the “acting-out” stage begins, most often it must run its course.

During this stage, emphasis should be placed on youngster, peer, and adult safety, and protection of school, home, or personal property. The best way to cope with a tantrum, rage, or meltdown is to get the youngster to home base. As mentioned, this room is not viewed as a reward or disciplinary room, but is seen as a place where the youngster can regain self-control.

Of importance here is helping the individual with Aspergers regain control and preserve dignity. To that end, grown-ups should have developed plans for (1) obtaining assistance from educators, such as a crisis educator or principal, (2) removing other kids from the area, or (3) providing therapeutic restraint, if necessary. 

The Recuperation Stage

Following a meltdown, the youngster with Aspergers has contrite feelings and often cannot fully remember what occurred during the “acting-out” stage. Some may become sullen, withdraw, or deny that inappropriate behavior occurred; others are so physically exhausted that they need to sleep.

It is imperative that interventions are implemented at a time when the youngster can accept them and in a manner the youngster can understand and accept. Otherwise, the intervention may simply resume the cycle in a more accelerated pattern, leading more quickly to the “acting-out” stage. During the recuperation stage, kids often are not ready to learn. Thus, it is important that grown-ups work with them to help them once again become a part of the routine. This is often best accomplished by directing the youth to a highly motivating task that can be easily accomplished, such as activity related to a special interest.

Preventing Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns

Kids and teenagers with Aspergers generally do not want to engage in meltdowns. Rather, the “acting-out” cycle is the only way they know of expressing stress, coping with problems, and a host of other emotions to which they see no other solution. Most want to learn methods to manage their behavior, including calming themselves in the face of problems and increasing self-awareness of their emotions. The best intervention for tantrums, rage, and meltdowns is prevention. Prevention occurs best as a multifaceted approach consisting of instruction in (1) strategies that increase social understanding and problem solving, (2) techniques that facilitate self-understanding, and (3) methods of self-calming.

Increasing Social Understanding and Problem Solving

Enhancement of social understanding includes providing direct assistance. Although instructional strategies are beneficial, it is almost impossible to teach all the social skills that are needed in day-to-day life. Instead, these skills often are taught in an interpretive manner after the youngster has engaged in an unsuccessful or otherwise problematic encounter. Interpretation skills are used in recognition that, no matter how well developed the skills of a person with Aspergers , situations will arise that he or she does not understand. As a result, someone in the person's environment must serve as a social management interpreter.

The following interpretative strategies can help turn seemingly random actions into meaningful interactions for kids with Aspergers:

1. Analyzing a social skills problem is a good interpretative strategy. Following a social error, the youngster who committed the error works with an adult to (1) identify the error, (2) determine who was harmed by the error, (3) decide how to correct the error, and (4) develop a plan to prevent the error from occurring again. A social skills analysis is not “punishment.” Rather, it is a supportive and constructive problem-solving strategy. The analyzing process is particularly effective in enabling the youngster to see the cause/effect relationship between her social behavior and the reactions of others in her environment. The success of the strategy lies in its structure of practice, immediate feedback, and positive reinforcement. Every grown-up with whom the youngster with Aspergers has regular contact, such as moms and dads, educators, and therapists, should know how to do social skills analysis fostering skill acquisition and generalization. Originally designed to be verbally based, the strategy has been modified to include a visual format to enhance child learning.

2. Visual symbols such as “cartooning” have been found to enhance the processing abilities of persons in the autism spectrum, to enhance their understanding of the environment, and to reduce tantrums, rage, and meltdowns. One type of visual support is cartooning. Used as a generic term, this technique has been implemented by speech and language pathologists for many years to enhance understanding in their clients. Cartoon figures play an integral role in several intervention techniques: pragmaticism, mind-reading, and comic strip conversations. Cartooning techniques, such as comic strip conversations, allow the youngster to analyze and understand the range of messages and meanings that are a natural part of conversation and play. Many kids with Aspergers are confused and upset by teasing or sarcasm. The speech and thought bubble as well as choice of colors can illustrate the hidden messages.


Although many kids and teenagers with Aspergers exhibit anxiety that may lead to challenging behaviors, stress and subsequent behaviors should be viewed as an integral part of the disorder. As such, it is important to understand the cycle of behaviors to prevent seemingly minor events from escalating. Although understanding the cycle of tantrums, rage, and meltdowns is important, behavior changes will not occur unless the function of the behavior is understood and the youngster is provided instruction and support in using (1) strategies that increase social understanding and problem solving, (2) techniques that facilitate self-understanding, and (3) methods of self-calming.

Kids with Aspergers experiencing stress may react by having a tantrum, rage, or meltdown. Behaviors do not occur in isolation or randomly; they are associated most often with a reason or cause. The youngster who engages in an inappropriate behavior is attempting to communicate. Before selecting an intervention to be used during the “acting-out” cycle or to prevent the cycle from occurring, it is important to understand the function or role the target behavior plays.

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


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Anger-Control for Kids and Teens on the Autism Spectrum

"I desperately need ideas on how to deal with an autistic child (high functioning) who is often agitated and angered. We rarely know what will trigger him, as it seems to vary widely from situation to situation - and from day to day."

All children experience anger. But, young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), in particular, have difficulty channeling their strong emotions into acceptable outlets.

Anger is a response to a real or perceived loss or stress. It results when an individual’s body, property, self-esteem, or values are threatened. Anger is often a reaction to feeling frustrated, hurt, misunderstood, or rejected. If your youngster does not learn how to release his or her anger appropriately, it can fester and explode in inappropriate ways, or be internalized and damage his or her sense of self-worth.

As a mother or father, dealing with an angry youngster is inevitable. Many of us have heard our own pre-parenting voice whisper to us, saying something like, “That will never be my child acting-out like that” (famous last words). Anger is learned, but so is composure!

As parents, we hope our kids learn to:
  • communicate angry feelings in a positive way
  • express anger nonviolently
  • learn how to avoid being a victim of someone else's angry actions
  • learn how to control angry impulses
  • learn how to problem solve
  • learn how to remove themselves from a violent or angry situation 
  • learn self-calming techniques
  • recognize angry feelings in themselves and others


Below are several crucial techniques to help teach your AS or HFA youngster calmer, more constructive ways to express anger:

1. Acknowledge strong emotions, helping your youngster control herself and save face (e.g., say, "It must be hard to get a low score after you tried so hard").

2. Be sure to VALUE what your youngster is experiencing. For example, if he is hurt and crying, never say, "Stop crying." Instead, validate your youngster's experience by saying something like, "I’m sure that hurts. That would make me cry too." This makes an ally out of you, rather than a target for free-floating anger. As an ally, your youngster learns to trust you, realizing you are there for him no matter what. If your youngster can trust you, he can learn to trust himself and the outer world.

3. Create a “ways to relax” poster. There are dozens of ways to help AS and HFA kids calm down when they first start to get bent out of shape. Unfortunately, most of these young people have never been given the opportunity to think of those other possibilities. Thus, they keep getting into trouble because the only behavior they know is inappropriate ways to express their frustration. So, talk with your youngster about more acceptable "replacement behaviors.” Make a big poster listing them (e.g., draw pictures, hit a pillow, listen to music, run a lap, shoot baskets, sing a song, talk to someone, think of a peaceful place, walk away, etc.). Once your youngster chooses her replacement behavior, encourage her to use the same strategy each time she starts to get upset.

4. Encourage your youngster to accept responsibility for his anger and to gain control by asking himself the following questions: Did I do or say anything to create the problem? If so, how can I make things better? How can I keep this issue from happening again?

5. Facilitate communication and problem solving with your AS or HFA youngster by asking questions (e.g., How can I help you? What can you do to help yourself? What do you need? Is your behavior helping you solve your problem?).

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
6. Help your youngster to understand her own emotions by putting her feelings into words (e.g., say, "It looks like it made you angry when they called you names").

7. Help your youngster to understand that anger is a natural emotion that everyone has. Say something like, "It's normal to feel angry. Everyone feels angry from time to time, but it is not O.K. to hurt others."

8. Involve your youngster in making a small list of “house rules” (e.g., we work out differences peacefully, we use self-control, we listen to others, we are kind to each other, etc.). Write them down and post them on the refrigerator. Make the rules clear, and follow through with meaningful consequences that are appropriate for the age of your youngster when the rules are ignored.

9. Listen, reflect and validate (without judgment) the feelings your youngster expresses. After listening, help him identify the true feeling underlying the anger (e.g., hurt, frustration, sadness, disappointment, fear, etc.). Say something like, "That hurt when your friend was mean to you," or “It was scary to have those boys bully you.”

10. Many children on the autism spectrum act-out because they simply don’t know how to express their anger any other way. Kicking, screaming, swearing, hitting or throwing things may be the only way they know how to express their emotions. To help your youngster express her frustrations appropriately, create an “emotion words” poster together (e.g., "Let’s think of all the words we could use that tell others we’re really frustrated"). Then list her ideas (e.g., angry, mad, annoyed, furious, irritated, etc.). Write them on a chart, hang it up, and practice using them often. When your youngster is upset, use the words so she can apply them to real life (e.g., "Looks like you’re really frustrated. Want to talk about it?" …or "You seem really annoyed. Do you need to walk it off?"). Then keep adding new feeling words to the list whenever new ones come up in those "teachable moments" throughout the day.

How can children with High-Functioning Autism cope with anger and depression?

11. Resist taking your youngster’s angry outbursts personally. Always deal with him in a calm, objective way.

12. Sometimes a child’s anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems in his life. Not all anger is misplaced. Occasionally it's a healthy, natural response to the difficulties that the AS or HFA child faces. There is a common belief that every problem has a solution, and it adds to parents’ frustration to find out that this isn't always the case with their “special needs” child. The best attitude to bring to such a circumstance, then, is not to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how you handle the problem as painlessly as possible.

13. Stop any aggressive behaviors. Say something like, "I can't let you hurt each other," or "I can't let you hurt me." Then remove your youngster as gently as possible.

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

14. Teach your AS or HFA youngster to take a time-out from the difficult situation and have some “alone-time” for a few minutes. During the time-out, your youngster can rethink the situation, calm down, and determine what to do next. The length of the time-out is determined by the intensity of the emotion. A youngster who is simply frustrated may just need to take a deep breath. The youngster who is infuriated probably needs to leave the room and settle down. After your youngster has calmed down, it’s time to decide on a more appropriate response to the situation. There are at least 3 positive choices: talk about it, get help, or slow down. Simplifying the choices makes the decision process easier. Even AS and HFA kids can learn to respond constructively to frustration when they know there are just a few choices.  These choices are skills to be learned. Take time to teach your youngster these skills, and practice them as responses to mad feelings.

15. Try a "time-in" rather than a "time-out." As the mother or father, you are your youngster's main guide in life. She relies on you to be there with her through her difficult emotional experiences, whatever that may be. Thus, no time-out and no isolation may be the best option on occasion. Instead, try a "time-in." Sit with your youngster and incorporate other methods mentioned in this article (e.g., work on breathing with her, ask her questions about her feelings, etc.). The important thing is to be fully present with your child to help her through her emotions. Remember, you are teaching her social skills to be in relationships with others, rather than acting out alone. When some boys and girls are isolated, they often ruminate and feel guilty for their behavior. This only serves to create low self-esteem, which often cycles back to creating behavioral problems.

16. Use feeling words to help your AS or HFA youngster understand the emotions of others (e.g., Robbie is sitting alone and looks very sad; he may be lonely," or "When Michael tripped, he looked embarrassed").

17. Use role-playing, puppets, or videos to teach social skills (e.g., how to treat each other, how to work out disagreements, etc.).

18. When your child becomes frustrated, use those incidents as "on-the-spot lessons" to help him learn to calm himself down (rather than always relying on you to calm him down). Let me rephrase this (because this is an important technique): Every time your child acts-out due to low-frustration tolerance, ALWAYS use that moment as a teaching moment. For example, explain to your youngster that we all have little signs that warn us when we’re getting frustrated. We should listen to these signs, because they can help us stay out of trouble. Next, help your youngster recognize what specific warning signs he may have that tells him he is starting to get angry (e.g., I talk louder, my cheeks get hot, I clench my fists, my heart starts pounding, my mouth gets dry, I breathe faster, etc.).

Once your youngster is aware of his unique warning signs, start pointing them out to him whenever he first starts to get upset (e.g., “It looks like you’re starting to get frustrated" …or "Your cheeks are getting red. Do you feel yourself starting to get upset?"). The more you help your AS or HFA child to recognize the signs when his anger is first triggered, the better he will be able to calm himself down. It’s also the time when anger-control techniques are most effective. Anger escalates very quickly, and waiting until your youngster is already in "melt-down" to try to get him back into control is usually too late.

19. Simple relaxation tools can help your child calm down. For example:
  • Use imagery; visualize a relaxing experience from either your memory or your imagination.
  • Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase (“relax” or “take it easy”). Repeat it to yourself.
  • Breathe deeply from your diaphragm (breathing from your chest won't relax you, so picture your breath coming up from your belly).

20. Help your youngster understand that she can “choose” how to react when she feels angry. Teach her self-control and positive ways to cope with negative impulses. Here are some choices she can make:
  • Calm self by breathing deeply
  • Count slowly
  • Draw or play with clay
  • Exercise, walk or run
  • Find a quiet place or sit alone
  • Hug someone, a pet or a stuffed animal 
  • Look at books or read
  • Play music or sing
  • Problem solve
  • Rest or take a shower
  • Stop and think
  • Tell someone how you feel
  • Tense body and then relax 
  • Write about feelings

By following the techniques listed above, parents can help strengthen their relationship with their AS and HFA kids and give them the tools they need to cope effectively with frustration and anger.

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

==> 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

Modified Disciplinary Techniques for Children on the Autism Spectrum

If your youngster has High-Functioning Autism (HFA), should you discipline him in a different way than you do with your other kids? The answer is YES! But, they still need discipline. HFA is a challenge, not an excuse for misbehavior. Nonetheless, moms and dads will need to be more flexible in their expectations.

Parents must understand up front that HFA impacts their child’s ability to understand instruction, follow through on tasks, and control his impulses. Also, they will need to provide discipline and instruction more often and with more consistency. Your “special needs” child is emotionally much younger than his chronological age. After all, he has a “developmental disorder.” So, lessons may take longer to sink in.

Misbehavior from kids on the autism spectrum is frustrating – and repeated disobedience over an extended time can be infuriating to many moms and dads. Just like with their “typical” kids, most parents will automatically respond to misbehavior by using punishment to stop it. But this isn’t the most effective approach – especially for a youngster with combined autism and ADHD or ODD. Punishment alone never teaches new behavior. It only teaches what NOT to do – it doesn’t teach what TO do.

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

Here are a few tips regarding modified disciplinary techniques for kids on the autism spectrum:

A Different Form of Time-out—

Kids on the spectrum often enjoy playing alone. As a result, a “time-out” in their bedroom is often a reward rather than a punishment. Thus, when issuing a time-out with your HFA child, it’s best to put him in a place without the comforts of the bedroom (e.g., at the dining room table without games, toys, digital devices, etc.).

Keep time-outs unusually short (e.g., 1 minutes for young kids, 3 minutes for preschoolers, and 5 minutes for 6-10 year olds). This is plenty of time IF your child shows quiet feet, quiet hands, and quiet mouth. Long time-outs often start a battle of wills, and the message that the consequence sends gets lost.

Contrast “time-out” with “time-in.” For example, if you put your HFA youngster in time-out for pushing his sister, you should have been praising him earlier for playing appropriately with his sister – and should praise him after time-out for completing the 1-5 minute consequence successfully. If there isn't a big difference between time-out and time-in, the “special needs” youngster doesn't understand the consequence.

If you tell your youngster to go to time-out and she ignores you, then simply add 1 minute to her time-out. If she ignores you again, then add another minute. If she ignores you a third time, DON’T add more additional minutes (if it goes over 5 minutes), and DON’T pick her up and drag her to time-out. This will make things worse, and the attention (which is now negative attention) can unintentionally reinforce the noncompliance. 
The course of action at this point is to simply impose a consequence that “hurts” (e.g., no video games for the rest of the day). Deliver that consequence calmly, and don't talk about it further. Even if your youngster says, “No mom, I'll go into time-out now” …don't give in! Otherwise, she will know that you “cave-in” if she just sounds desperate enough.

A “prompt” (e.g., a timer) to signal the beginning and end of a time-out will help. If your youngster won’t cooperate, remind her that the time-out doesn’t start until she is quietly in her time-out location.

Practice time-outs ahead of time. For example, ask your youngster to pretend that she behaved badly, and that she is being sent to time-out. Have her practice going to time-out without putting up a fight. Then reward with acknowledgement and praise for completing the practice run.
==> Launching Adult Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

A Different Reward System—

Rewards work well for kids with HFA, but they, too, may need to be tweaked slightly. For instance, one expectation may be to take turns when playing games with siblings. It's probably not realistic to set that expectation for a whole day, because if the HFA child messes up in the morning, he’s lost the entire day. Rather, break the day up into thirds and give points for appropriate behavior in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. Once your child has earned points, you can’t take them away.

So, if your child plays fairly in the morning, he earns reward points (rewards can include doing something special, or receiving a special treat or privilege). If he plays unfairly in the afternoon, he must leave the game and go somewhere else for a timeout, and he doesn’t receive reward points – BUT he doesn’t lose the morning points he earned. Also, most kids on the spectrum need more frequent rewards. They will lose interest if they have to wait an entire week to earn one.

Avoiding Physical Punishment—

A good ass-whipping may have worked for you as a child – I know it did for me! However, spanking, yelling, or other aversive methods should never be used on an HFA child. These somewhat traditional (or old school) methods may work in the short term, but they don’t prevent problematic behavior in the long run – often resulting in worse problems! This is because one side-effect of the use of physical punishment is counter-aggression. So, if you use this type of punishment on your “special needs” youngster, guess what he is going to do the next time he’s angry with his sister? Counter-aggress!

Physical punishment teaches aggressive behavior; it teaches how to punish back. Also, the HFA youngster may begin to engage in escape or avoidance behavior. For example, if he gets spanked at home for acting-out at school, he may refuse to go to school due to the anxiety he now has about his school-related, acting-out behavior.

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

Taking Advantage of Obsessions—

Almost all kids go through periods of development where they become engrossed in one subject matter or another, but kids with HFA often display obsessive and repetitive characteristics, which can have significant implications for behavior. In many cases, it is appropriate to utilize the obsession or “special interest” to motivate and reward your youngster for good behavior. However, always ensure any reward associated with positive behavior is granted immediately in order to assist the youngster in recognizing the connection between the two.

Concrete Instruction—

The HFA child also does better with very specific instructions. For example, instead of telling her to “clean her room,” be specific. For example, “Be sure to pick all clothes off the floor, and put all books on the bookshelves.” In this way, she clearly understands what to do. Also, this chore should be visually represented on a chore chart somewhere in her bedroom.

Learn How Your Child Thinks—

Kids on the spectrum tend to be very logical in their thinking, focusing more on facts than feelings. If the consequence doesn’t make sense, it will not likely change the unwanted behavior (e.g., making the child do extra chores because he got mad and broke his favorite toy). The discipline must fit the “crime” (e.g., the child breaks his treasured toy, so he must take money from his allowance to purchase a new one). There must be a connection between the misbehavior and the discipline. 
So, before you discipline, be mindful that your youngster's logic will not necessarily reflect your idea of common sense. In addition, look for small opportunities to deliberately allow your youngster to make mistakes for which you can set aside “discipline-teaching” time. This will be a learning process for your youngster – and you!

Picking the Right Battles—

Parents can't change everything at once in their HFA youngster. Instead, they should choose a few big things that they want to work on, and put the other things aside for now. Pick your battles carefully. BUT, when you do pick one, stay with it and be consistent! HFA children thrive on consistency, routine and structure. Use this trait to your advantage.

Replacement Behavior—

Kids on the autism spectrum need a “replacement behavior.” So, rather than saying, “You need to stop that” …say something such as, “I need you to stop _______ (be very specific in describing the misbehavior), and do ________ instead (be very specific in describing the replacement behavior).” For example, “I need you to stop bullying your sister. So, go to your room and find something else to do. Maybe play your video game.” Also, use the phrase “I need…..” as noted above. This is something YOU, the parent, need. Your HFA child doesn’t “need” to stop picking on his sister. He’s perfectly fine with doing it.

Visual Instruction—

Another important consideration for a youngster with HFA is to teach him the skills he needs to succeed BEFORE he has a problem. For instance, all kids need guidance to help them keep up with chores and homework. However, a child on the autism spectrum can't be expected to "just get it" from verbal instruction. Instead, he needs a visual schedule that he can follow. So, devise a visual chore chart, as well as a homework chart (i.e., what is to be done, in what order, and when it is to be completed).

In order to effectively discipline the HFA child, parents will need to comprehend each of the factors above and fully place them in the proper context of any given situation. This knowledge will aid parents in catching problems early and laying a foundation for “prevention,” rather than dealing with problems after they occur and having to jump to “intervention.”

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