Raising a child with autism can be challenging, but the rewards are immense. Discipline can be one of the most problematic aspects of your parenting journey. Children with autism can overreact to sibling rivalry, overstimulation from crowds or noises, unfamiliar environments or just being told no. A simple temper tantrum can spiral into rage. Fortunately, there are discipline techniques designed to minimize behavioral concerns. With perseverance and patience you can develop a successful system of discipline for your child.
Keep a predictable schedule for your child. Children with autism gain security from repetition. Consider creating a visual schedule with pictures of the day’s activities so your child always knows what is happening next.
Give your child time to adjust to transitions in his schedule. Even known transitions can create havoc for your child, so expect a surprise change of plans to induce a meltdown. Plan ahead to help your child avoid anxiety or tantrums. Give him five-, three- and one-minute warnings when it is time to move to the next activity.
Gain your child’s full attention before giving him instruction or a direction. Your verbal instruction or discipline will be more effective if you ensure your child is paying attention to you, according to Dr. Thomas S. Higbee, director of the ASSERT Autism Program. Make a sound or gently touch your child to get his attention. Wait until he is making eye contact or looking at you. Avoid using force.
Intervene before your child has an out-of-control tantrum. If possible, remove your child from the environment and allow him to cool down. Preventing meltdowns and rages are the best strategy. Use a weighted vest or other tools if his occupational therapist has recommended them to reduce anxiety and rages.
Determine the behaviors you would like your child to discontinue and choose replacement behaviors. Investigate the reason behind your child’s action. The replacement behavior must fit the same need. For example, teach your child to swing when he needs sensory stimulation instead of spinning around inside the house where he could injure himself. Practice role playing the replacement behavior.
Remove any unintended positive reinforcement for negative behaviors. If your child is misbehaving for attention and you give him the desired attention, the behavior is reinforced. Ignore negative bids for attention and give positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior.
Be flexible. Many unwanted behaviors cannot be “cured” with discipline alone. The sensory processing issues that often accompany autism can create difficulties in controlling behavior for your child. He may not be able to make appropriate choices when faced with an overly stimulating environment, such as a fair or loud movie theater. Find a quiet place to rest for a few moments or leave the environment if your child is overstimulated. A break from the sensory overload may be just what he needs to control himself.