An Approach to Discipline for the Child With Autism

by Laura Haney, DCO Therapist

“We never want to punish a diagnosis!” – Dr. Robert Jason Grant

Disciplining a child with autism can be confusing, overwhelming and seemingly impossible, at times. Parents struggle with knowing whether they are dealing with a tantrum or a meltdown, or why their child does not seem to respond to normal disciplinary measures. The staff at Developmental Center of the Ozarks (DCO) has compiled these discipline tips, to help our readers gain a better understanding of their child’s behavior, and how to achieve better results in dealing with those behaviors.

Is a Meltdown Just a Temper Tantrum?

No! Temper tantrums are thrown by a child who wants something such as a toy, or wants to avoid something, such as chores. When he or she gets what they want, the tantrum ends. They rely on having an audience, and normally will not continue the tantrum otherwise. A meltdown, on the other hand, is a very intense reaction to being overwhelmed or overstressed. This does not end by reaching a goal, but more likely ends by fatigue setting in. A meltdown is not dependent on having an audience. Your child may truly need help to regain control.

Understanding Behaviors

When considering an approach to discipline for a child with autism, the key is having a better understanding of unwanted behaviors. Here are some basic facts about your child’s behaviors:

  • Behaviors are a form of communication. Your child trying to communicate something to you. Try to understand what your child is trying to tell you.
  • Behaviors are a response to internal or external stimulus. Your child’s inappropriate behavior is due to a process of dysregulation, (an emotional response that is poorly modulated and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response), to those stimuli.

When you stop to consider and react to these stimuli, rather than the behavior itself, you might find yourself taking a different approach to discipline, ultimately cultivating a happier and more fulfilling relationship with your child.

Change your Strategy

Sometimes we need to rethink our own mindset, and these pointers will help you move in the right direction:

  1. Front end approach vs. back end approach – Try focusing on the stimulus that caused the behavior, instead of focusing on the behavior itself.
  2. Sensory and regulation approach vs. traditional approaches – Learn to provide regulation interventions instead of providing consequences.
  3. Being proactive vs. being reactive – Help teach your child self-regulation skills, instead of disciplining the behavior.

10 Helpful Tips for Behaviors

  1. Consider your surroundings: If the social setting is overwhelming to the child, avoid that situation, until interventions can be practiced and put into play. (If possible, grab groceries before you pick up your child from day care instead of taking them to the store with you, if this happens to be an environment that easily upsets them). To help prepare for trips that can’t be avoided, practice social stories: (see www.carolgraysocialstories.com for more info). Make sure your children are dressed comfortably and appropriately for the environments in which they will enter. If your child is sensitive to bright lights, carry sunglasses. If they are sensitive to loud noises, carry noise-reducing headphones or hush hats.
  2. Teach and encourage regulation interventions: Your child will likely struggle with anxiety and dysregulation. Helpful interventions include: breathing techniques, fidget toys, sensory diet, bouncing, singing a song, yoga, counting, taking a break, and so on.
  3. Prepare your child for transitions: Establish daily routines as early as possible and stick to them as much you can. Provide your child with schedules and timers, so that they can see clearly what is happening and when, and to transition between activities. Allow your child plenty of time to adjust to unexpected changes, use visual aid cues when you can, and provide plenty of support to help them through it.
  4. Manage your expectations: Your child may appear more capable or less capable than he or she actually is. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from severely challenged to gifted. A characteristic of many people on the spectrum is the uneven pattern of development of their skills and abilities. They may have certain skills that are far more advanced than their other abilities. Those higher skills are known as splinter skills. Remember that they may think and respond differently from you or your other children.
  5. Consider environmental stimuli and sensory processing: Your child may be experiencing sensory processing issues in one or more areas regarding the seven senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch, vestibular, and proprioception). It is best to meet with an Occupational Therapist to receive a sensory diet that is appropriate for your child. Assistive technology, like weighted and non-weighted compression vests, weighted blankets, and orthotics can be recommended, as well as techniques like joint compressions, brushing, deep pressure exercises, and other sensory integration activities.
  6. Provide visual learning: Many children with autism have challenges in receptive language ability, making them visual learners. They will prefer information to be presented in a visual format. Using visual charts, aids, schedules, cards, baby signs, and social stories are examples of ways to provide visual cues. For more information, visit: https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/resource-library/visual-tools
  7. Keep in mind your child’s emotional regulation ability and verbal communication level: Children with autism often struggle verbally to communicate what they are thinking or feeling, especially when in a dysregulated state. If children cannot regulate their emotions, their communication will suffer. Some areas of emotional regulation that parents can practice with their children, before dysregulation occurs, include: identifying emotions, understanding and expressing emotions, recognizing emotions in others, sharing emotional experiences with others, and managing emotions. Adjust these practices to meet your child’s communication level.
  8. Be accepting of inconsistencies: Your child will likely be inconsistent in terms of skill ability presentation (he or she may accomplish something one day that seems very challenging and the next day is unable to accomplish something that seems much less difficult). Remind yourself to remain patient while assisting them in using their strengths and interests to build upon more challenging tasks. Some tasks will require much more practice, and that’s okay!
  9. Have patience: Your child may be slow to respond to questions or tasks, needing extra time to process what has been said or asked of him or her. Allow time for your child to process what has been said to them. Provide visual cues when possible, to help them process the information. Offer appropriate signs or words for their use in responding.
  10. Forgive yourself and your child: We are only human after all!

“Don’t think that there’s a different, better child ‘hiding’ behind the autism. This is your child. Love the child in front of you. Encourage his strengths, celebrate his quirks, and improve his weaknesses, the way you would with any child. You may have to work harder on some of this, but that’s the goal.” – Claire Scovell LaZebnik


Suggested link:

www.sensorysmarts.com and www.braingym.com are two websites with sensory interventions.

Book resources for parents:

Play-Based Interventions for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Loretta Gallo-Lopex and Lawrence C. Rubin

Come and Play: Sensory-Integration Strategies for Children with Play Challenges by