Children with autism often have unusual behaviors and difficulty understanding rules. Proven strategies can help, but punishing your child is not one of them.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes many symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, which can impact behavior and sometimes leave parents feeling understandably frustrated and perplexed.
For example, a child with autism may want to be alone or may repeat an activity, such as rocking back and forth, over and over. Behavioral symptoms in a youngster with autism can also include not responding to their name and a seemingly inability to focus or understand directions.
Inappropriate and often annoying behavior in kids with ASD, however, is not due to the children being “bad” or misbehaving on purpose. Autism is a neurological problem involving how the brain processes information. The symptoms are due to this very real medical condition.
So, punishing your child will not “correct” autistic behavior. Instead, it will likely cause trauma and more difficulties for the child and the parent, too.
Punishing your child is the wrong prescription for autism
If you are a mom or dad of a child with autism, it is crucial to learn about ASD and to discuss with your child’s doctor any frustrations you have about coping with your youngster’s symptoms.
Physical punishment and berating children who do not have autism is harmful and ineffective, according to the American Psychological Association. For youngsters who are diagnosed with autism, the confusion and potential damage resulting from “punishment” for their ASD symptoms can be even worse.
A case in point: Many autistic children are unusually sensitive to high-pitched or loud sounds, touch, flickering lights, and large groups. That’s why a child with autism who has what appears to be a temper tantrum in a crowded store or other noisy environment is likely suffering from severe sensory overload, the Autism Research Institute points out. Punishing your child will not “correct” autistic behavior like this — or any other — because the behavior has a neurological basis.
Psychologist Stephanie Weber, PsyD, of the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, notes some parents of autistic children use physical discipline as punishment to try to stop an unwanted behavior quickly. She points out, however, that a child with autism may not understand when a parent makes certain demands, such as “don’t do that!” And the child likely won’t grasp why he or she is being hit for not obeying.
In addition, as Weber explains in an Autism Speaks column, spanking or some other corporal punishment does nothing to teach a child with autism how to behave. So, it is not a long-term solution, and punishing your child will not “correct” autistic behavior.
Children in general learn behavior by the way it is “modeled,” Weber emphasizes. If you use spanking or other physical punishment, for example, you are modeling that it is OK for your child to physically hit others or him or herself. Self-harm is a common behavioral problem associated with ASD.
Although there is no cure for autism, strategies can improve symptoms of ASD. Behavioral therapies, which typically require working with a psychologist, can often help. Medications may also be appropriate, depending on your child’s specific case and symptoms, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
That said, even with helpful treatments, parents need to adjust their expectations of how a child with autism is “supposed” to act.
It’s important to note autism symptoms often improve with age and behavioral treatment. But during the teen years, the NINDS points out, some youngsters with ASD may become depressed or experience more behavioral problems. They may need new or additional behavioral and other therapies — not punishment — as they transition to adulthood.
How to help improve your autistic child’s behavior
Instead of punishing your child, autism behavior expert Weber advises learning about better ways to help calm or otherwise change unwanted behaviors related to autism.
Remember, your child may have trouble communicating with words. If a child is self-harming, such as hitting his or her head or face, it may be because the youngster has a toothache or headache and is trying to soothe the pain. This should be a sign to contact your child’s doctor. Self-hitting may also occur when a child with autism feels distressed and is trying to avoid something or needs attention.
When dealing with these and other challenging autism symptoms, Weber urges looking for positive approaches, including praise and high-fives, to get your child’s attention and help with communication.
Visual supports, such as a schedule or calendar with pictures, can help a child with autism understand what will happen on a certain day. Using a “token” board, with a picture of a reward of some kind your child receives when he or she completes a task, is often helpful, too, Weber explains.
For example, a picture of a toothbrush with toothpaste that is linked by an arrow pointing to a picture of Legos can help a child with autism understand that play time with Legos comes after brushing their teeth. The Autism Speaks website offers other examples of how you can use visual aids to help a child with autism communicate and stay on task.
April 14, 2023
Janet O'Dell, RN