One way children can learn whether a behaviour is appropriate is through discipline. It is part of educating your child to understand socially acceptable and respectful behaviour, as well as learning right from wrong. Implementing discipline strategies can be challenging as it requires parents to enforce consequences to the negative behaviour (O’Nions, Happe, Evers, Boonen, & Noens, 2018). This challenge is further heightened especially when disciplining a child with ASD.
Children with autism struggle to understand non-verbal social communication cues, such as facial expressions and body language (Alshurman & Alsreaa, 2015). For example, a child with ASD may not recognise the expression of anger or the firm body language that is being portrayed by another individual. Hence, these misunderstandings can make traditional discipline techniques less effective for children with ASD as they might not understand the consequences of their actions (O’Nions et al., 2020). Instead, gentler and consistent strategies would be more efficient in helping them manage their behaviours (Parlade et al., 2020).
Being Gentle and Consistent
Children with autism tend to learn through imitation - If the child is screaming and throwing a tantrum, it is important for the adult to be calm and respond to the child’s behaviour clearly and gently (Contaldo, Colombi, Narzisi, & Muratori, 2016). This would allow the child to imitate the calm demeanour of the adult and better regulate their emotions as well. Consistency is also essential for safe and effective discipline (Ting & Weiss, 2017). Research has shown the majority of children with ASD respond well to structured discipline as they rely a lot on routines (Burkett, Morris, & Anthony, 2016). Consistent discipline can alleviate some of the child’s anxiety, which is a common characteristic of autism (Crowell, Keluskar, & Gorecki, 2019). As a result, if your child can predict the outcome when they engage in a certain behaviour, they may not feel as overwhelmed and will learn over time what is acceptable and appropriate, and when it is not. For example, saying no when the child is playing with scissors, consistently in any setting that this behaviour occurs and not responding differently based on the situation.
In addition, the usage of clear and simple language while disciplining children with autism would be the best way in getting them to understand what is expected of them (Wright, 2013). These children tend to have trouble understanding subtleties in verbal language or body language (Sturrock, Chilton, Foy, Freed, & Adams, 2021). Hence, when a child starts displaying negative behaviours, rather than telling them what they should not do which may confuse the child as they might not know how to behave in that situation, direct them to what the appropriate and acceptable behaviour is instead (O’Nions et al., 2018). An example would be if a child is pulling a cat’s tail, instead of saying ‘Stop pulling the cat’s tail’, one can say ‘Pet the cat gently’.
Understanding Common Autistic Behaviours
However, not all behaviours should be disciplined, as some behaviours may be hard for children with ASD to control. For example, self-stimulation (spinning, rocking, hand flapping, etc.) is very common among children with autism (Kapp et al., 2019). These behaviours help them to regulate their emotions and it would do more harm than good by disciplining them for doing it (Joyce, Honey, Leekam, Barrett, & Rodgers, 2017). Similarly, many children with ASD are sensitive to sensory input (Thye, Bednarz, Herringshaw, Sartin, & Kana, 2018). They might experience overstimulation or under stimulation, which leads them to engage in screaming, biting, hurting themselves by hitting their head or avoiding eye contact (Leekam, Prior, & Uljarevic, 2011). These behaviours are a way of relieving their sensory needs (Thye et al., 2018). In such scenarios, it would be better to consider what sensory stimuli are causing the behaviour and change the environment rather than enforcing discipline.
Controlling the Environment
As mentioned above, the environment that a child with autism is placed in can play a huge part in how they behave (Noiprawat & Sahachaiseri, 2010). For example, crowded or noisy places could be a trigger for agitation or frustration (Koegel, Openden, & Koegel, 2004). Therefore, if one is aware of this, parents could avoid bringing the child to such locations or simply remove the child from that environment before any negative behaviour could occur.
Rewards and Consequences
Last but not least, rewards and consequences are one of the most effective techniques for disciplining children with ASD (Ashley et al., 2010). When the child performs the desired behaviour, they are given a reward as positive reinforcement – Giving the child extra time to play with the iPad for cleaning their room when asked. Conversely, when they perform an undesired behaviour, consequences are delivered – Reducing their iPad time when they do not clean their room when asked. Thus, the child is most likely to perform the desired behaviour as they will be rewarded and the undesired behaviour will be reduced due to the consequences they will have to face (Hayward, Gale, & Eikeseth, 2009).
In summary, it is important to remember that children with autism are not behaving in a certain manner to be bad or defiant. They are usually struggling to communicate and deal with uncomfortable feelings that they do not know how to express. Most importantly, one has to learn to listen to their child’s needs and adapt any discipline strategies accordingly. It takes time, effort and patience, but they are capable of it!
Written by: Rebecca
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