Autism Files: discipline?

A constant debate among professionals, parents, or even perhaps with yourself, is how to approach the minefield of discipline among children (and adults) with ASC.

I say it’s a minefield, because unlike neurotypically developing children, those with Autism do not have the same levels of communication or understanding, or the same boundary levels.

For example, imagine a child is doing something and you ask them to stop. Perhaps they are banging their plate on the table, or throwing toy cars across the room. In a child with Autism there are many complicated factors going on when you ask them to ‘stop’.

  • They may struggle to process or understand the meanings of your words. Do you mean stop eating? Stop playing? Stop breathing?
  • They may understand your meaning, but have great difficulty transferring that understanding onto changing the way they are acting.
  • They may have such a fragile relationship with the world around them that hearing the word ‘no’ or ‘stop’ causes their confidence to be so badly shaken that you might as well have told them that they are rubbish at everything.

All children who develop without Autism will push boundaries. They may deliberately do things that they have been asked or told not to do. They may well have a full understanding of the consequences of an action (‘If you continue to pull your sister’s hair you will not be watching TV tonight’) but continue to do something anyway for a plethora of reasons. Children with Autism often push boundaries also, but have little or no understanding of consequences. In other words they may continue to pull their sister’s hair and be banned from watching TV but when it comes to 6pm and they go to turn the TV on they will have no understanding at all of why they are being sent upstairs. You can imagine the confusion and anxiety that this could cause.

A different way of looking at the world around them also has a big impact on the ways that children and adults with ASC will react to different forms of discipline. When neurotypical young children get upset or angry about something that they have been told to do or not to do they may express their frustration physically by throwing something, hitting someone or dropping to the floor. People with Autism will do all of these things too, however because they often do not have the same sensations of pain or the same ‘stop’ barriers as other people their reactions can be much stronger and more damaging. How do you go about telling someone with Autism to stop doing something when every time you do they bang their head off the floor so hard that it makes their forehead bleed?

All these things make the issues of discipline and teaching right from wrong extremely complex and many-layered. I don’t really know if I have come up with any answers. I know that I do believe that it is just as important if not more so to teach and educate people with Autism on what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, where they have responsibilities and where there will be consequences for their actions.

In this sense, people with Autism are no different from everyone else. We all need to learn to get along with people we don’t particularly like, we all need to accept that we have to do things in life that we don’t really like doing. Everyone has to experience the consequences of making the wrong decision or going against some advice or instruction. I firmly believe that if we are to treat people with Autism the same as everyone else then they too need to be able to accept these things in a way that is appropriate for them.

What I do not believe, however, is that teaching these rules and responsibilities can be applied in the same way to individuals with Autism and to each individual across the spectrum. It is really important to approach each person individually. As I said above, some people with Autism will react so strongly to being told no that they will do themselves permanent physical damage. Some individuals have little understanding of social rules and norms and so will have no motivation to not do things that cause upset to others. And of course it is essential that each time someone with Autism does something ‘naughty’ we are asking questions like ‘what are they trying to communication?’ ‘is there something that is upsetting them?’ ‘what do they want to achieve by doing this?’ It is more often than not the case that there is a message behind behaviour.

As I said, a minefield! I know I have probably asked more questions here than answered them, but I think that’s the way of it.


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