|Discipline Strategies for Autism
To autistic children, the world may feel disorganized and overwhelming. Due to their lack of communication
children with autism tend to retreat into themselves. They can also display unwillingness or anger if forced
to have contact with the world when they do not want to. Children with autism can become frustrated and
angry because they find it difficult to express their feelings in a way that other people can understand. As a
result, they appear disorderly but there are ways to help. Most children with autism improve as they get
older. Their progress depends upon the degree of autism together with quality and quantity of services they
Ways to help
There are many things we can do to assist children with autism to improve their quality of life. Children with
autism can become confused, anxious and disconnected by everyday events and situations, they do not
readily understand. Difficult behavior often emerges as a way of communicating this confusion and
frustration. There are steps one can take to reduce confusion and thereby diminishing the difficult behavior.
Taking preventative action often requires time and effort. The effort is generally rewarded in the long run
and is more effective than reacting to the behavior after it has occurred.
Children with autism are concrete, literal thinkers and have difficulty communicating both verbally and non-
verbally. Being unable to express or receive messages can lead to frustration and anger. Here are some steps
we can take:
• Give and receive messages using a variety of communication methods (written, verbal, gesture, or visual
• Use clear, simple and precise language when giving instructions; start with one word and gradually move
on to more complex sentences.
• Try to phrase requests in a positive way, stating what you want rather than what you don’t want.
• Use activity schedules to assist the child in following daily routines.
• Provide a structure and routine this assists the child in knowing what to expect.
Children with autism have difficulty understanding social rules and interpreting the feelings and emotions of
others. Physical space and/or contact with others may cause anxiety. Here are some steps we can take:
• Actively teach social behaviors through role play and presentation.
• Have clear consequences for inappropriate social behavior.
• Rehearse social rules in different settings.
• Reinforce the use of appropriate verbal or facial expressions of feelings and emotions.
Changes in Environment
Children with autism can become very confused when routines change. They may also know what is
expected in one situation but may not be able to transition this knowledge to another, related situation. Here
are some steps we can take:
• Explain rules (using a variety of communication methods) that apply to each situation encountered.
• Teach the same skill in different settings.
• Identify danger, being prepared, and transition between activities.
• Provide clear signals to specify the start and finish of an activity.
• Use effective communication to warn of unexpected changes to routine.
Difficult behavior usually serves a purpose for the autistic child. Once you identify the desire, you may learn
how to prevent the behavior and replace it with something more appropriate. For example, the desire may be
to gain attention or obtain something, or avoid or escape from an unpleasant situation. Traditional forms of
discipline are not effective with an autistic child who is displaying difficult behavior. The child may not
simply seek approval or understand anger from another person so your reaction to the behavior may have
little impact. It is always important to look at what motivates and interests each child and to assist the child
to communicate his/her needs, anxieties and frustration in acceptable ways. Assistance through behavioral
services, role play and modeling may be necessary.
For a sibling without an autism spectrum disorder it can be difficult to understand why their brother or sister
receives different treatment or appears to ‘get away with’ their bad behavior.
• Explain Autism to siblings and encourage them to ask you questions about the disorder.
• Ask the typical child for help with their autistic sibling. Give them a role, such as helping the child
with ASD with homework.
• Give your typical child plenty of attention when they behave well.
Discipline Strategies for Children with Disabilities Prevention Strategies
• Solve any medical or sleep problems
• Increase supervision and structure
• Establish set daily care routines
• Have set places where activities always occur
• Establish a reward system
• Work on simple directions - following them everyday
• Increase your efforts to “catch them being good”
• Use picture schedules - if helpful
• Use of stop sign/universal no symbol
• Allow plenty of time (exercise patience)
• Pick your battles and follow through
• Increase consistency between care givers (work together)
• Be consistent and firm (not 100%)
• May need “down time” following school/daycare
• Have a set community outing each week that occurs just for “teaching” and practicing good behavior
• Guided compliance (small steps)
• Time-out (use sparingly)
• It’s okay to say, “No”
• Give specific directions for compliance
• Teach an acceptable alternative behavior
• It’s okay to “bribe”
Key Points to Remember
With some behaviors the goal should not be zero! (Consider the child’s developmental level: whining,
noncompliance, temper tantrums, and talking back are normal for kids in general!)
• Don’t be afraid to discipline
• Don’t be afraid to discipline while out in the community
• Have a set plan for car misbehavior
• Don’t feel guilty if you are not 100% consistent
• Establish a safety net of support around yourself
• Attend parent support group meetings
• Use respite care
Tracy J. Stephens Ph.D.