Parenting and Disciplining the Autistic Child

Parenting autism is a tough job. What do we mean by "parenting autism"?

Well, for starters, parenting a child is a tough job. It's especially tough given that you have a special needs child…one with autism. There are so many emotions that go along with parenting that it can be very difficult to sort them out. As a parent with an autistic child you constantly ask yourself questions like…

  • Am I doing the right thing for my child with autism?
  • Would someone else be doing this better?
  • Should I give in to his demands because I feel bad for him having autism?
  • Am I doing enough?

It can be very hard for parents to ever feel like you are doing enough when parenting a child with autism. This entire phenomenon of being the parent of a loved one with autism is what we refer to as "parenting autism."

It is important, though, to remember to keep things in perspective, and remember that you are the authority on your autistic child. No one knows your child better than you do.

No one knows your autistic child like you do.

There might be some people who understand more about autism, but no one knows a child like a parent. No one else knows that if you pick him up and tickle him while whispering nonsense words, that you can always get a laugh; or that his favorite cereal is Cheerios with strawberries in it but he hates blueberries; or that he sleeps on his side with half a dozen stuffed animals and that he needs to have the nightlight with Winnie the Pooh on it in order to sleep.

Parenting autism successfully requires that you know all these little details about your child with autism. And you DO know all the details. You just have to trust yourself to make the right decisions. More likely than not, you'll end up doing just fine.

Parenting Autism and Discipline

One area that can be particularly hard for parents, though, is to know how to discipline autistic kids. They can seem so out of control sometimes that you just want to run in the other direction! Their tantrums can be loud, overwhelming, and destructive; they don't seem to respond to common sense.

If you tell your child with autism that she is okay, she just cries louder. Maybe your first child was able to pick himself up after getting hurt and move on, and you're puzzled as to why your autistic child can't do the same thing. Maybe, your child with autism screams and lashes out at you for what seems like nothing, and you're at your wit's end in figuring out how to make it stop. Parenting autism successfully requires that you master the rules of discipline.

What role does anger play in behavior problems in autistic kids?

Before we talk about parenting autism and specific methods of discipline, it is necessary to talk about the role anger plays in behavioral problems in children with autism.
Kids with autism often have significant trouble with emotional regulation. If something happens to them that seems unfair or troubling, all of a sudden it's all they can think about, all they know to be true about their world at that moment. Kids with autism are likely to become angry and don't have much experience understanding their anger or knowing how to control it.
We often think of anger as a bad thing. Many of us were taught not to show any emotions, especially anger; we were taught to hold the feelings in and never show them.
Parenting autism successfully means that we get rid of that notion in our autistic children. Holding things in never helps. Feelings were meant to be expressed. All kids, and especially kids with autism, should be allowed to feel and express strong emotions.  To parent autism successfully we need to teach our child with autism how to deal with anger in a healthy, constructive way.

Anger and aggression are different from each other.

Anger is a temporary feeling caused by frustration, while aggression is an act often meant to hurt someone or destroy something that someone owns. Anger is okay, but aggression is not.
The following tips can help in parenting your autistic child when they become aggressive.
  1. Positive Reinforcement: Catch the child being good. Make sure to reward and acknowledge whenever you see your child with autism doing a behavior that you like. We often forget to notice or appreciate it when things are running smoothly; the trick is to notice when things are going right, and verbally acknowledge what your autistic child is doing right so he will be more motivated to repeat these behaviors in the future. Positive reinforcement is a powerful factor and a key to parenting autism successfully.
  2. Ignore Bad Behavior Aimed at Getting Attention: Those who have mastered parenting an autistic child realize the importance of ignoring bad behavior, when possible. That is, if the child with autism is acting out to get attention, don't give him the attention. If he is doing something to deliberately provoke you, don't let him have the satisfaction. Those who have been successful at parenting an autistic child say that this is one of the most important lessons to learn.
  3. Provide Outlets for Physical Activity: Any child, but especially a child with autism, needs to have opportunities to run around and let off steam, to have some kind of movement or play, both at home and at school. Due to sensory issues, many autistic kids get overwhelmed resulting in frustration. Physical activity can allow your child with autism to "let off steam" and calm down.
  4. Avoid Troubling Situations: Don't put kids with autism in situations that seem like they will lead to troublesome behaviors. For example, intensely competitive activities for a child that is too aggressive and doesn't respond to competition well; or any activities where the child might be judged harshly for a child who does not respond well to criticism.
  5. Human Contact: Closeness and touching can often curb angry impulses in some kids with autism. We all crave human contact to different degrees, and young autistic children especially crave adult attention from their parents in their activities.
  6. Show Interest: If you show interest in what your autistic child is doing, his focus will be on that, and not as much on what he is feeling inside. He will be calmed by the interest you express in him. This is very important in parenting an autistic child. Children with autism need to know and feel they are important to, and have a connection with, parents and other adults. Be explicit in how you show and express your interest. Subtleties often are lost on a child with autism.
  7. Sometimes All We Need Is A Hug! This is an easy and simple thing to remember; showing affection to a kid with autism when he is angry can loosen him up and relax him. Give him a hug, a shoulder rub, or a big smile. This may not work as well for kids with more serious emotional issues who have trouble accepting affection.

Parents of autistic children as well as professionals tasked with teaching children with autism often struggle with how to discipline a child with autism. But mastering these principles are important to parenting autism successfully.

Parenting autism tips from other parents and professionals can be extremely helpful. A great resource that has parenting tips and suggestions is the The Autism Survival Guide by Craig Kendall. Craig has interviewed hundreds of parents just like you to glean the best and most effective parenting autism advice.

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