Disciplining Kids With Autism: 3 Things To Remember

This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a  mom who blogs over at AutismWonderland.


I was raised by an old school Puerto Rican mother who believed in tough love. She was quick with a slipper and quicker with her hands. She moved so swiftly, you didn’t realize you were given a cocotazo, until you felt your scalp stinging. Needless to say – I got the slipper and cocotazos often. I also went to Catholic school. I was a chatty kid and I spent most of my grade school years with tape on my mouth or sitting alone in a corner. It wasn’t considered abuse. It was discipline. And it was the early 1980s – no one cared.

I don’t believe in spanking my son, Norrin. And I would be horrified if any teacher put tape on his mouth to keep him quiet. But it’s 2012. And the idea of discipline has changed.

A few months ago, while at a friends home Norrin misbehaved and I guess my response wasn’t enough. We were asked to leave (kicked out, actually – but that is a whole other blog post). I knew that my friend felt I should have disciplined Norrin. And later, my friend made sure to tell that it was the third time (over several visits, not that same day) my son had misbehaved and that such behavior was unacceptable in his home.

Kids with autism don’t often get things by the third time. It took us months to get Norrin to point his finger. Years for potty training (and at almost seven years old, he still wears pull-ups at night). It takes a long time to teach Norrin most things. Eventually he gets it. In his own time.

So how does an autism parent discipline their child? How do we teach them that some behavior – hitting, yelling, throwing – is simply not acceptable?

Back in the Early Intervention days, ABA therapists told us to ignore negative behavior and redirect. Most parents can get away with ignoring and redirecting the negative behaviors of a three-year-old. Ignoring and redirecting a seven-year-old exhibiting negative behavior  – all adult eyes are on you. And they are judging.

I decided to try something new. (Well, new for me. You may be doing this already.) I made up a list of “House Rules.” I got the idea from Norrin’s teacher after she gave me her list of class rules. Now, when Norrin breaks one of the house rules, I point him to the list. I ask him to read it out loud. I talk to him about right and wrong. And then I redirect him. If he corrects the behavior, I give some kind of verbal praise and a hug. If he does not – I take something away (like the iPad). So far, it seems to be working. (I’ll keep you posted.)

The thing is, when it comes to disciplining Norrin, most of the time, I am at a loss. Some days he gets it. Some days he doesn’t. And it’s hard to know if I’m doing the right thing.

But this much I do know (because I’ve learned the hard way):

  • What works for parents of “typical” kids, is probably not going to work for yours;
  • Screaming at your kid while he’s in the middle of a meltdown isn’t the right time to teach anything; and
  • They need you to be patient.

How do you teach discipline to your kids?

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  1. by Tooner

    On December 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Do they know that Norrin has autism? If they do, that’s terrible that they’re acting that way and kicking you out of the house.

  2. by Suzanne B.

    On December 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    I’m sorry to hear about the incident between you and your friend. There were definitely times when I avoided visiting friends because I didn’t want to deal with their anxiety over my son. As parents of a 9-year-old boy with ASD and ADHD, my husband and I have struggled with the question of discipline from the toddler years. (We had different but no less worrisome issues in the infant years!) It was hard enough to hear the words of parenting wisdom that were so often offered by (usually) well meaning friends and family BEFORE his diagnosis. It made me wonder what I was doing wrong as a parent that all of these tricks of the trade weren’t “sticking” for us and our son. After the diagnosis, and especially after these friends and family were aware of the diagnosis, it just made their comments and advice that much more emotionally charged. Particularly when I sensed that the advice was being offered up for a behavior that annoyed them but didn’t hurt anyone, break any of their things, and wasn’t dangerous. Like you, we carefully decide which behaviors warrant our focus in the short term, and leave what we consider to be minor annoyances or infractions to later. For example, “stay with me” while shopping, crossing the parking lot, etc. was a safety issue. So it became “stay with me or we go home.” When he wouldn’t stay with us, we did in fact go home and live with the meltdown that resulted–usually only his, though there were occasions when we both cried over having our outings cut short. ;-) Unfortunately, our son was never one for the easy rewards (the M&Ms or stickers), so we have had to watch him carefully to figure out what reward or consequence will be incentive enough to help him monitor and modify his behavior. It’s always a work in progress. And if that means avoiding friends and family who aren’t open to that process in all of its imperfection, then I’ll gladly save everyone unnecessary frustration!

    I’m sorry that you

  3. by Kim

    On December 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    I never understood how any parent can assume what works for one kid will work for another. Normal children are all different and respond to different things. When you add in a disability of any kind it just becomes that much more complicated. I will say that often what will work for a disabled child can easily be adapted for a regular kid of the same age, but it almost never works the other way around.
    As for it taking awhile for him to learn? There are MANY children without disabilities that take forever to learn how to control their own behavior. It is a normal part of learning. Anyone who can`t figure that out needs to get their head out of the sand. I know adults who never learned self control.

  4. by lior

    On December 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Sweetie, you have let therapists ruin your brain. You could have a kid with no issues other than behavioral, many parents deal with this and get stared at. BEING IN PUBLIC WHEN A KID MISBEHAVES is tough on any parent. Some kids really give you a run for your money. I have advice. Because I have a smart kid with so many issues, too many to list but I avoid most labels. OCD I accept because I think it’s biological. Everything else I do believe is a variation and you deal with weaknesses using strengths. That aside, the rule list is great. stick to it. Let him help with it. repeat alot. I think not being emotional is key. when youre emotional, all kids take it personally and dont get the rule. I think the trick if a child is rigid is to have a very consistent rule set but I disagree with experts in that I think SOME flexibility is not only required but it teaches them flexibility. dont ruin your rules but explain some exceptions and if something really throws your child off, make an adjustment, some days are bad some are good. Much love. gd bless. Lior.

  5. by nymama

    On December 6, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    I have a son with autism. He has a friend with aspergers. The friend has, on multiple occasions, hit him with his hands, hit him with hard toys in the head, and pushed him. I get it and all but should my son be this kid’s punching bag just so I can appear understanding? I dont keep the kids apart but we do movie dates, trips to the park and much less frequent play dates in the home where this tends to happen. I also happen to think that my friend does not discipline her son well enough when these things happen but instead of telling her so (because who really listens anyway, look you wrote a whole article giving no credit to your friends opinion) I have chosen to try and change the other factors in the situation and reduce their interaction. I happen to think you have to be more firm and more clear with discipline for autistic children, they dont have the social instincts to help them along. Your friend was very clear with the rules for his home and the price for breaking them. Without actually knowing what your son did I can only speculate as to what would be bad enough to get me to go that far with a friend.