Last updateMon, 28 Jan 2013 9pm

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DISCIPLINE and the Autism Spectrum

Ouch, this is a bit of a hot potato for me to write about. What is discipline? Is it punishing someone by telling them off and shouting at them when they have messed up? Or maybe it is a quick smack on the bottom? An extended amount of time spent on the ‘naughty chair’? Or maybe it is sitting still at the dinner table (no elbows!) until everyone has finished and saying please and thank you in the right places? Or is that ‘manners’?

Discipline is the instant willingness and obedience to all orders, respect for authority, self reliance and teamwork.

‘Self’ discipline is a hard lesson for those of us on the autism spectrum. Many of us don’t have the knowledge or ability to be able to self regulate. We need help understanding that discipline actually is not a nasty word – it will help us ultimately if we understand its meaning. Some children on the autism spectrum will also exhibit signs for Oppositional Defiance Disorder. This diagnosis will further complicate the ability to follow rules and leads to many confrontational incidents mainly involving professionals and parents.


(Please also see our article on Oppositional Defiant Disorder for further information)

For many children the word ‘discipline’ means punishment. Professor Tony Attwood says:

“I tragically see a number of teachers saying "it's a matter of discipline!" Well, okay. Certainly having AS is not a license to do whatever you want to do, and there must be natural consequences. But my view is, with the child with AS, you must spend more time explaining what they did that was wrong, why it was wrong, what you are supposed to do, and how to know when you are supposed to do it”.

Invisible differences are often either ignored or disbelieved. Let’s face it when you see a child with a physical disability struggle your heart goes out to them, yet you see an autistic child defy an adult or a rule, all of a sudden they are ‘naughty’? That’s how it feels to us on the spectrum. For many children their way of communicating although not pleasant for those around, may be their only way of expressing their emotion at the time. We may be very upset about something completely separate from what is currently happening. We are often jumbled and confused when we become defiant or provocative. Please don’t take it personally.

A child who is refusing to comply and is becoming ‘disruptive’ will not be able to understand ‘LOGIC’. Emotions and logic don’t sit well together. Never try and explain anything to a jelibean who is set on arguing with you! It won’t wash. AND PLEASE DON’T ARGUE BACK! We will keep going until WE have the last word. Wait until the situation has calmed down and then gently reason with them. One rule to follow is keeping it simple. Don’t give long rambling explanations, we lose interest and forget! Put together your own rule book if you like J e.g.:

If you come in late the consequence will be ……?

Or maybe their sister or friend has been hurt or upset? Saying sorry is relatively easy and often meaningless. A way to deal with this is to have your darling jelibean tidy their sister or friends room? Lend their favourite video game to them? Or share their pocket money for the week? Whatever you do, please ensure that a repair mechanism is in place so that bad energies don’t spill over into days and weeks. Sorry notes are helpful, they are a ‘to do’ task, always more meaningful than a simple word.

Don’t later on change the rules without telling us. We HATE THAT! As well as not ‘being fair’ (we hate that too), it is a change and we hate those too. Many children on the spectrum feel that they are blamed for incidents that they are not responsible for. The sense of injustice is very real for a jelibean, especially when they get punished for it too.

Note for Teachers

These are invisible differences but they are REAL differences. You probably expect children to know the difference between what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not. Maybe because the parents have signed a ‘Behavioral Agreement with the school you think it is their job to spell out the rules? You also perhaps think that children should know the difference between right and wrong? I am sorry to inform you that you are wrong on both counts. This is one of the most fundamental mistakes that can be made. We really don’t know ‘how to behave’ sometimes. And yes, often we get really difficult to manage because we are being ‘mismanaged’ with ways that don’t suit us. As a parent it was horrific for me to hear teachers think that because of my ‘bad parenting’ my children were badly brought up with no rules in place? Nothing could be further from the truth. Most parents have really tried very hard and are struggling themselves. Problems at school merely add to this and the pressure can sometimes be overwhelming when we feel targeted and blamed.

  • Use the word ‘discipline’ for positive strategies e.g.:
  • Saving pocket money for a special treat
  • Ensuring that they drink at least a litre of water a day
  • Making sure they put their brains into gear before their mouths!
  • Taking 10mins exercise a day
  • Discipline should NOT mean bad things or punishments. It should be embraced and used in a positive way.

Take the easy option and PRAISE us when we do well! Positive techniques work so much better. Everyone reacts to a smile and a KIND WORD, even a grumpy jelibean who refuses to play ball. Never drag a jelibean anywhere, just lead them gently and they will happily follow.