Discipline Strategies for Children With Autism

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When a child misbehaves, whether the problematic behavior is throwing a temper tantrum, hitting another kid, or ignoring instructions, you may be inclined to scold them or take away certain privileges. But disciplining a child with autism may require a different approach.

Traditional discipline techniques aren't always effective for a child with autism. Depending on where they fall on the spectrum, they might struggle to understand consequences or handle harsh reprimands. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use any discipline at all. Instead, gentler and consistent strategies may be the key to helping children with autism manage their behavior.

Understanding Common Autistic Behaviors

We usually discipline children because they consciously act in inappropriate ways, whether it's swiping treats off a sibling's plate or intentionally tripping a child on the soccer field. However, a child with autism may not be able to control certain behaviors, and it's important that they are not harshly punished for them. Some behaviors that children with autism may struggle to control include:

  • Biting their hands and fingers
  • Hand flapping or rocking (self-stimulating behavior that helps people with autism regulate their emotions)
  • Screaming or yelling
  • Hurting themselves by banging or hitting their heads
  • Not looking at people or making eye contact
  • Physical aggression toward peers and grown-ups, like biting, spitting, or kicking

Many of these behaviors stem from children's struggles to express their needs or desires or understand social norms and cues. You shouldn’t place your child in time-out, shame them, or spank them because of these behaviors. Rather, it's important you work to better understand why they are acting out in this way and, if necessary, try to avoid those triggers in the future.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Children with autism respond better to discipline techniques that focus on the positive. With positive reinforcement strategies, you call attention to things your child is doing right (using their quiet voice in the supermarket, for example) and praise them or reward them for it.

Some children might be motivated by a classic sticker chart, where they can collect stickers for good behavior and eventually earn a prize for a certain number of stickers. But many children with autism, particularly young ones, respond to more immediate positive feedback and rewards that relate directly to the behavior. For example, if they ask nicely for a stuffed animal in a store rather than scream or hit their heads in frustration, they earn immediate praise (and maybe, if appropriate, the stuffed animal).

Teach Self-Calming Techniques

Meltdowns are common in kids, but it can harder to calm a child with autism. Some children with autism can learn self-calming techniques for when they start to feel out of control of themselves or a situation.

One simple self-calming technique they can try is to breathe in and out through their nose slowly while closing their eyes and imagining something pleasant, like their kitty or their favorite park. If you or another trusted adult is around, they can hug the adult until they're settled. Gentle, steady pressure, like from a hug, is calming for many children with autism.

Control Their Environment

For children with autism especially, it's helpful to make their immediate environment conducive to their comfort. Taking care to fill their play area or room with preferred toys and objects can make them feel more safe and comfortable, which may lead to more regulated behavior.

Conversely, try to avoid situations that you know can trigger their agitation—for some kids with autism, for example, it can be crowded or noisy places—and be on the lookout for signs of pending frustration. Sometimes, kids with autism can be compulsive about certain toys or activities and that can interfere with basic routines. These distractions can be removed when tasks need to be completed.

Stick to Routines

Many kids with autism crave consistency and order and can struggle to cope when regular routines are disrupted. They might lash out or increase self-stimulating behaviors to deal with unpredictable situations. Help them by limiting the number of activities you have them do and sticking to a predictable schedule.

That might mean skipping a speech therapy session one week rather than bumping it to another day when the teacher is accidentally double booked, or not trying to fit in sudden, unexpected errands with them after a long day of school. Create a schedule that you can display in your child's room or in a common area with pictures they can use to quickly identify what they can expect to do each day of the week (like a photo of their speech therapist on Tuesday).

Communicate Clearly

It's best to use plain language and directives with kids who have autism. Children with autism spectrum disorders often have trouble understanding subtleties in verbal language or body language.

When your child starts acting out, direct them to what you prefer them to do rather than what they shouldn’t do. For example, if a child is pulling a dog’s tail, don’t say, "Stop hurting the dog." Instead, you can say, "Pet the dog softly."

Ignore Harmless Behaviors

Some behaviors of children with autism seem strange but aren't dangerous or disruptive. Primary examples of this are self-stimulating behaviors like hand-flapping or rocking.

If a problem behavior occurs infrequently, doesn't prevent your family or others from regular routines, and doesn't harm your child or others, then it should be ignored whenever possible.

Put Safety First

Many children with autism don't display behavior that would hurt themselves or others. However, whenever you are dealing with a behavioral situation in which a child is physically lashing out, you need to make sure that they (and others around them) are safe.

If your child is having a tantrum that is hard to stop, be sure to remove hard or sharp objects that might be in their path. If you are having trouble removing your child from a populated place (such as the playground or a birthday party), recruit help from another grown-up to distract and direct other children to another area.

Seek Professional Help

If you are finding it hard to manage your child's behavior, don't hesitate to seek professional help. Look for people with expertise in helping children with autism, like developmental-behavioral pediatricians or child psychologists.

There are several therapies that have been proven to be helpful for kids with autism. Most stem from the principles of applied behavioral analysis (ABA), which focuses on building and encouraging new skills, providing access to preferred activities and toys, giving kids choices whenever possible, increasing appropriate communication, and making complex situations more predictable using signals and other routine gestures.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I discipline a child with autism and ADHD?

Children with autism respond to clear, short directives in the moment. Help set them up for success by praising desired behaviors, establishing regular routines, and avoiding tantrum-triggering environments. These techniques, which avoid harsh discipline, work well with children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), too—and all kids, generally.

Why do children with autism need rules and discipline?

Boundaries are key to living in society, no matter your neurological makeup. Like all children—but perhaps to a greater degree than most—children with autism commonly thrive on routine. Establishing rules and limits is a way of reinforcing routines, which may be a comfort to kids with autism.

How do you discipline a child with autism at school?

It's important you work with your child's school to establish a shared approach to discipline. Having similar expectations and strategies will allow children to carry over lessons learned from school to home, and vice versa.

A Word From Verywell

It’s not easy to raise a child with autism (or any child, for that matter), but it's important to know that they are not acting out to be bad or to defy you. They are usually struggling to communicate or deal with deeply uncomfortable feelings. They deserve care and compassion, never harsh or physical discipline.

To help promote good behavior in a child with autism, stick with predictable situations and settings, express your wishes clearly and directly, and practice patience when certain behaviors may seem odd but aren't dangerous. And when a situation seems too tough to handle, don't be reluctant to seek help from medical professionals who can support and guide you.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.