Positive and Effective Discipline Strategies for Autistic Children: Promoting Positive Behavior and Growth
Discipline for autistic children requires a unique approach that takes into account their individual needs, communication style, and sensory sensitivities. As a parent or caregiver, it is important to understand that discipline is not about punishment but about teaching appropriate behavior, fostering self-regulation, and promoting positive growth. In this article, we will explore effective discipline strategies tailored to children with autism, aimed at creating a supportive and nurturing environment for their development.
Behavioral struggles found in autistic children
Children with autism may develop several types of behavioral problems. Some of those issues will evolve as your child grows, while others may appear at an early stage.
Above all, you should keep in mind that every child is unique. Therefore, your approach should be tailored to your child’s specific needs and circumstances.
Before getting into positive discipline strategies for autistic children, it is very important to understand and address the cause of unwanted behavior. First we will discuss some of the most common behavioral issues that autistic children commonly face and what parents can do to deal with each of those problems. We will then delve into strategies and techniques that you can utilize to help discipline autistic children.
The Underlying Causes of Unwanted Behavior in Autistic Children
Children with autism may exhibit challenging behavior due to various triggers, such as sensory overload, communication difficulties, or changes in routine. Rather than solely focusing on the behavior itself, try to identify the underlying cause of the behavior. By addressing the root cause, you can better support your child and help them cope with their emotions and sensory experiences.
Emotional meltdowns and physical tantrums are common amongst all children. However, autism can exacerbate these problems and make them more difficult to address.
As a parent, the best way to handle your child’s physical tantrums is to prevent them in the first place. Understanding the warning signs that preceded a meltdown allows you to intervene at an early stage.
Here are some of those warning signs:
- Your child asks you to leave them alone or places their hands on their ears when you talk to them.
- They are stimulating themselves by pacing, constantly flicking their fingers, and/or rocking back and forth.
- Your child starts to stamp, yell, and/or cry more regularly than usual.
When these symptoms become more intense or energetic, it can mean that the child is on the verge of having a tantrum.
As mentioned earlier, intervening during the onset of these symptoms can prevent the meltdown altogether. The following strategies will help:
- Take your child outside the house or to a different room. If they stop showing warning signs, it means that the noise, lights, or something else in the house is making them feel uncomfortable.
- Show them guidance while they interact with others and in social situations. Many autistic children go through a meltdown when they become socially anxious.
- Teach your child how to meditate in order to relieve negative emotions.
- Certain sensory toys, such as buzzers and squeezable objects, can largely reduce stress and anxiety.
- If your child is already experiencing a tantrum, take them to a quiet room until they calm down.
Above all, it is important to keep an eye out for behavior that could lead to self-harm. Many autistic children (and even adults) try to hurt themselves and others or try to run away from home during a meltdown.
Many times, kids on the autism spectrum will resort to hitting others when they struggle to communicate. For example, your child may hit a classmate while playing a game because they don’t understand the rules and feel anxious about asking questions.
Autistic children can resort to physically aggressive behavior at home, school, or anywhere else. A helpful tool would be identifying what triggers this and teaching how to better communicate in such situations.
To clarify, here are a few methods that you can use:
- Write a log or diary whenever your child becomes more aggressive. This can be crucial in helping you identify triggers that lead to this behavior.
- Since children often resort to hitting when they feel angry or anxious, you must try to stay calm while attempting to understand what your child is upset about.
- You can move your kid to another room or location when they act aggressively towards other children.
- Work on showing your child how they can communicate in a more positive way. This may require the help of a mental health professional.
In the same vein, stress and anxiety could lead autistic children to hurt themselves.
While your kid might hit others or throw toys at them during stressful social situations, they could also injure themselves while alone for the exact same reasons.
Here are some of the most common examples of self-injury:
- Banging their head against the wall or floor
- Aggressively scratching themselves
- Unintentionally causing self-injury or creating a harmful situation, such as by kicking a hard object or throwing toys at a window (which can cause it to break).
Dealing with self-harm may require a unique approach, but many techniques are similar to the ones that you would use when your child starts acting aggressively towards others. This includes writing a diary, identifying triggers, and approaching the situation in a calm manner.
Other than that, here are some discipline strategies that you should rely on when your child engages in self-harm:
- Find another activity to engage in. Kids with autism may bang their heads or pull their hair when they’re bored and don’t know how to positively communicate that.
- If your child is enjoying an activity, give them a 5 or 10 minute warning before it’s time to do something else (such as have dinner, do homework, or go to bed). Some autistic children struggle when they have to stop doing something that they enjoy.
- Identify a quiet room for your child with visual cues, such as a calm picture.
Children on the autism spectrum may resort to self-harm when they have social anxiety. Fixing the latter may diminish or minimize self-harming actions.
Many of the behavioral problems above (namely physical tantrums, hitting, and self-injury) can be symptoms that your child is struggling with social situations.
Luckily, you can use the same discipline strategies to handle these social issues.
To give a few examples, you could take the kid outside/to another room, offer them guidance when they interact with others, stay calm while communicating with the child, and teach them how to express themselves in a more positive manner.
When dealing with social issues, it is critical for parents to have a plan that also addresses the related challenges. After all, children who struggle in social settings may develop other behavioral problems.
Not Sitting Still when needed
There are many reasons why your kid may not sit still, whether it’s in class, at the dinner table, and/or while they’re doing their homework.
First and foremost, you should make sure that the noise levels and lighting aren’t making your child uncomfortable. This is one of the main causes for why an autistic kid would want to leave the room. Many find the use of noise canceling headphones to be very helpful.
Other than that, there are a few discipline strategies that can help when autistic children struggle to sit still:
- Allow them to release their pent-up energy during breaks through physical activities like jumping, pushups, using a straw to drink water, and pulling heavy objects.
- Assign them some chores at home or in class.
- Identify environmental factors that could help your child stay still. For instance, they might need to sit on a wiggle chair or a floor mat.
Parents should talk to their kid’s school teacher about implementing these techniques in class. Not only will this resolve social issues, but it can also teach your child the importance of discipline.
Not Following Instructions
If your child cannot follow instructions in general, then your approach should go a bit deeper. However, you should tailor your strategy to the child’s age and their ability to understand verbal commands.
Utilize one or more of the following behavioral discipline techniques when your child doesn’t follow instructions:
- Based on how old the child is, use simple phrases that they can understand. For instance, a seven-year-old might respond well to “sit down now”, but a three-year-old may only comprehend the word “sit”.
- Give your child visual cues (such as pointing) if they don’t initially listen to verbal instructions. Repeat this tactic until they start to respond to your words, without the need for pointing or physically gestures.
- Gradually integrate more commands as your child gets better at following instructions. As an example, you can start telling them to “sit down and drink a glass of milk” after they learn to listen to you when you say “sit down”.
In order to get faster and more positive results, when you discipline autistic children it is important to reward them through reinforcement.
Effective Discipline Techniques and Strategies for Autistic Children
There are a few key strategies to help promote positive discipline for autistic children. Let’s explore these concepts.
Consistency and Predictability in Discipline for Autistic Children
Consistency and predictability are essential when disciplining children with autism. Establishing clear rules, routines, and expectations provides a sense of stability, which can help reduce anxiety and meltdowns. Be sure to communicate these rules in a straightforward manner and use visual cues, such as picture schedules or written lists, to reinforce consistency.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in encouraging positive behavior in children with autism. When your child shows appropriate behavior or follows rules, offer praise, encouragement, or small rewards. This helps reinforce desired behavior and creates a positive association with following rules and meeting expectations.
Utilize Visual Supports
Visual supports can aid in facilitating understanding and compliance for children with autism. Visual schedules, social stories, and visual cues can help explain rules, expectations, and consequences in a clear and concrete manner. This enables the child to understand expectations better and strengthens their ability to self-regulate.
Implement Structured Time-Outs
While traditional time-outs may not always be effective for children with autism, structured time-outs can be a helpful disciplinary tool. Designate a calm and quiet space where your child can go to de-escalate and self-regulate when feeling overwhelmed or upset. Encourage them to use this space when they need a break, and ensure it remains a safe and non-punitive environment.
Incorporate Social Stories and Role-Playing
Social stories and role-playing can be valuable tools in teaching appropriate behavior and social skills when disciplining children with autism. Create simple narratives that illustrate positive behavior in specific situations, and engage in role-playing exercises to practice these behaviors together. This helps your child learn and generalize appropriate responses in real-life scenarios.
Model Desired Behavior
Children with autism often learn through observation and imitation. As a parent or caregiver, model the behavior you wish to see in your child. Demonstrate patience, empathy, and effective communication. This will serve as a positive example and reinforce the desired behaviors.
Avoid Physical Punishment When Disciplining Autistic Children
Physical punishment is not appropriate for any child, and it can be especially harmful to children with autism, who may have sensory sensitivities and difficulty processing physical touch. Instead of resorting to punishment, focus on positive reinforcement and teaching alternative, appropriate behaviors.
How ABA Therapy Supports Positive Discipline for Autistic Children
ABA therapy is often considered the gold standard for helping Autistic children. The techniques that ABA therapists use has been proven to be effective in molding the behavior of autistic children. From anger struggles to obsessive behaviors and every other behavioral issue, ABA therapy can help modify your child’s behavior and will give you the skills needed to effectively discipline your child.
Discipline for autistic children requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to tailor strategies to meet their unique needs. Emphasizing positive reinforcement, consistent routines, and visual supports can create an environment that promotes positive behavior and emotional growth. By addressing the underlying causes of challenging behaviors and teaching appropriate alternatives, parents and caregivers can empower children with autism to navigate their emotions and behaviors more effectively, fostering their overall well-being and development. Remember that every child is unique, and it may take time to find the most effective discipline strategies that work best for your autistic child.