Discipline has to be the most complex and bewildering issue a parent faces with an autistic child. And considering it’s a spectrum disorder, we are all going to have differing levels of priorities and methods as we go about it. I’m going to get into some deeper levels of psychology in this post, and you need to remember who is writing it. I’m just a contractor that took his tool bags off long enough to jot down some thoughts. As always, this is just real world experience of parenting with autism. I don’t pretend to be a professional.
Our son is pretty high functioning. He can get by in the mainstream classroom for much of the day, he can carry on a basic conversation with adults, and while he has delays in fine and gross motor skills, he’s still pretty active. Cause and effect, thus discipline, will look differently for me than it might for you. This post is a collection of thoughts that have bounced around in my head for a decade. If your situation is similar to ours, then hopefully something good can come from diving into this together.
I believe that no matter where your child is on the spectrum, we all have to start by acknowledging that ASD kids experience the world differently. It might even affect all five senses. If you don’t like nails on a chalk board, your child might have the same feeling about the desktop fan cooling an office. If you think a painting is beautiful, it might cause confusion and anxiety in your child. You may have never thought about the bright lights in the supermarket, but it’s all your child can think about while you’re there. Even the sense of smell can be different.
While it’s commonplace to acknowledge all this, sometimes we forget it when it comes to our child acting out and our decision to discipline. If your child is pretty high functioning, this gets even harder to process. For us, it’s tough. Our son has the ability to communicate, interact, and respond to every age group, so our expectation that he should do it well is higher. Almost all of the instances in which we have had to make a decision to correct his actions and enforce discipline come from social interactions gone wrong. And most of those instances come from how he treats his mom.
So where do we start? What information do we have at our disposal to help us make good decisions as parents? Here is what I’ve processed over several years.
Does the child understand right or wrong in this specific case? When our son started acting out socially, my first question was, “Does he even know that what he is doing is unacceptable?” For us, the only way to know for sure was when someone else treated him poorly. The first time it happened, his reaction was pretty telling. He sobbed and got angry when one of his playmates said something mean to him. So we then had a baseline by which his brain was determining right and wrong.
Is there an outside influence, beyond the child’s control, that has affected his/her ability to do the right thing? We talked about how senses are affected. Did our son act out and do or say something socially unacceptable because of an outlying sensory issue we can’t experience? What if the picture on the wall, to them, was actually moving and scary? Uncomfortable in their environment, and not knowing what else to do, they acted out and did something usually worthy of discipline. As you can see, this is a very tough one. If your child can’t communicate to you what is influencing their behavior, then what do you do? As parents, we have to be on a seriously heightened level of awareness and keep good mental notes on our environment.
Are they going to understand what discipline is and why it is being dealt? Most of us see cause and effect differently than autistic people do. We understand the general nuances of what is commonplace and what is unacceptable in life. Are we going to discipline kids even when they don’t understand in hopes that the discipline will create understanding? And will that discipline be viewed as commonplace behavior that they can turn and use against others? In our family, discipline has totally backfired because our son has received and processed it the opposite of what we intended. We have had to custom tailor our response to his acting out and continually modify it over the years.
Will discipline ever break the cycle? My family is almost 12 years into autism. Our son faces consequences for his misguided actions almost daily. What does that say about the future? We seem to face the same set of problems day in and day out. He is high functioning enough to likely understand eventually, but who knows? For years we’ve tried to help him adjust the way he talks to people, especially when he’s frustrated. I’m not sure we’ve made any progress. He still tells me he hates me while if anyone ever told him the same thing, he’d be beyond devastated.
I guess this post is less about a solution as it is about awareness of all the dynamics in play. I still don’t have the right answers. I’m sure I’ll be chasing that until I’m dead. We discipline our son by removing the things he enjoys in life – screens and special events, mostly. We offer up ways for him to work his way out of consequences. If he gets screens taken away, often times he can do physical work around the house to earn back some screen time – one minute of work for one minute of screen time. Are our ways good? Who knows? This issue has always been the biggest issue in parenting him. And honestly, I’m not sure any of our efforts are working. But we’re still trying. Trying hard.
The one thing I will leave you with is this. Discipline is going to be daunting and frustrating. Try not to get frustrated. Try to keep a level head. 99 things out of 100 might not work, but rather than get discouraged, move on and try something else. And don’t ever say, “Nothing is working”. I’ve done it too many times to count, and it’s terribly toxic to your psyche and your ability to think clearly in it. A much better thought is, “Something eventually has to work.” You might have a long road of trial and error in front of you. That’s OK. Keep trying. The fact that you refuse to give up means you’re on the right path.