Most children, at some point in their lives, misbehave. They may hit another child, grab a toy not meant for them, or demand when they should ask nicely. Most parents and teachers respond to such behavior with consequences, such as “time outs” or loss of TV privileges.
From these consequences, children learn that their behaviors are unacceptable; they also learn that controlling their impulses can have positive outcomes.
All to often, however, when a child with autism does something for which any other child would receive a timeout, instead of a consequence, the child with autism gets a “pass,” along with a comment such as “that’s OK, I understand,” or “Well, they did their best.”
When this happens to a child who has the capacity to understand the rules of behavior and control her impulses, they learn that the rules don’t apply to them. Next time, they will repeat the behavior expecting the same outcome.
Why Adults Avoid Disciplining Autistic Children
Most adults who give a pass to bad behavior in autistic children are doing so out of the kindness of their hearts. They may believe that the child is incapable of better behavior. They may believe that the consequences will cause some sort of emotional damage.
Or they may believe that the child with autism will lash out if confronted with disapproval. Whatever their reasons, however, adults who choose not to offer structure and discipline to children with autism are doing those children a disservice.
Why Discipline and Structure Are Important
If there is one thing that children (with or without autism) absolutely need to thrive, it’s structure and discipline. If there is one thing that frightens and overwhelms a child, it is a lack of adult involvement in creating a safe, structured, and orderly world.2
Yes, it’s easier to avoid disciplining a child with autism. And it’s tempting to assume that a child with autism is incapable of understanding or following rules.
In the vast majority of cases, autistic children are capable of understanding and complying with basic rules of conduct.
Those rules may need to be modified or bent, depending upon the circumstances. But a child who is raised or educated without the benefit of structure and discipline is almost certain to suffer the consequences as he or she grows up and finds it impossible to integrate into the community or the workplace.
MYTHS ABOUT AUTISM AND DISCIPLINE
There are several myths about autism that make it seem unfair or inappropriate to enforce behavioral rules. While these myths contain a grain of truth, it’s important to separate truth from misinformation.
“A child who cannot talk cannot understand.”
We are accustomed to the idea that verbal communication is a sign of intelligence.
Even a child with no words may be quite capable of understanding and complying with behavioral expectations, assuming that child can communicate via sign, communication board, PECS cards, or other means.
You may need to modify your style of communication to meet the needs of a child with limited or no verbal skills. For example, you may need to keep your words simple (“no hitting,” as opposed to “now Johnny, you know that we don’t hit in this house”), and you may need to use the child’s preferred means of communication. For most adults, modifications such as these should be easy to accomplish.
“Children with autism never misbehave without good reason.”
It is certainly true that many children with autism respond strongly to sensory input, and may show their discomfort through what appear to be naughty behaviors. And it’s also true that children with autism are more liable than typical children to suffer from bullying which may not be obvious to the adult in the room.3 So, yes, sometimes “behaviors” are the result of problems that can and should be addressed.
Nevertheless, children with autism are children. They get angry and hit. They throw things that shouldn’t be thrown. They put their hands in their food or dump their food on the floor.
Just like other children, children with autism need to learn that disruptive behaviors are not acceptable and that there are alternative ways to communicate feelings and needs.
“Children with autism don’t understand the consequences.”
It is critical to design consequences so that they fit the child and the situation. It may be tough for a child with autism to understand or comply with a “timeout,” but that same child may be quite capable of understanding and complying with time away from video games.
Consequences often differ for children with autism. For instance, grounding may not be a meaningful consequence for a child who prefers time alone, whereas a short break from television may get the point across quickly.
(Obviously, corporal punishment or incarceration in a closet or cupboard are the wrong consequences for any child.)
Bottom line, every child deserves the respect and support represented by clear structure, consistent rules, and discipline. These tools, along with some flexibility, patience, and imagination, can help a child with autism to understand his world and feel safe and confident as he grows up.
“It’s unfair to discipline a child with special needs.”
Of course, it is unfair to discipline a child for something he cannot avoid. So, for example, scolding a child with autism for “stimming” or making noise may well be unreasonable. These are behaviors that are part and parcel of being autistic, and it may be nearly impossible for the child to simply “extinguish” those behaviors.
It is not only fair but necessary to teach a child with autism that intentional misbehavior is unacceptable. Allowing such behaviors to continue because a child is “special” creates a new whole raft of behavioral and social problems.