Children on the autism spectrum have behavior problems that often require different discipline practices than typical children. Children on the autism spectrum think differently than the typical child and perceive rewards and sanctions differently by not responding well to negative reinforcement, as is true with typical children and not necessarily considering isolation to be a punishment whereby the usual “go to your room” method of discipline may not work. Parents have to be creative with their reward and sanction system when it comes to discipline and autism spectrum behavior.
In order to correct bad behavior, positive reinforcement, such as playing with a preferred toy, time with a computer game or watching a preferred television program, can go a long way. These rewards are considered effective for children on the autism spectrum because these children tend to respond to the presence or absence of things more than to human praise. These rewards can and should be offered with praise at the same time. However, praise alone is rarely a big enough motivator for Asperger’s children. Praise does not bolster their self-esteem in the same way it does with typical children. Possible sanctions involve the opposite of the suggested positive reinforcements, such as removing a preferred toy or television program.
Anything your child prefers will be a good currency to use in trying to correct bad behavior. These sanctions, however, must be accompanied by very clear explanations to the child about why the item is being taken away, or why a reward is being given. Only then can the child correlate the reward/punishment with a behavior. Even as a last resort, yelling or smacking is not an option and can easily traumatize the child. Most children on the autism spectrum would not be able to correlate that physical punishment with incorrect behavior, anyway. This is just counter-productive and will not modify any behavior in an effective way.
A few tips for helping to establish positive behavior management:
- Establish a set of concrete rules and consistently enforce them.
- Describe expectations in terms of what they are supposed to do, as opposed to what they should not do. For example, say “Keep your hands in your lap” rather than “Don’t push.”
- Illustrate what is expected of the child with written words, or pictures, they can reference anytime.
- Have clear boundaries for when activities begin and end. Use a time to signal each.
- Continue to use preferred activities as motivation for positive behavior.