How To Discipline An Autistic Child

How To Discipline An Autistic Child

How To Discipline An Autistic Child Autism is a rare childhood disorder marked by the child’s inability to form relationships, smile, indicate through gestures and a complete lack of social awareness. Autistic children are severely withdrawn and refuse to integrate themselves with their family or peers as active social participants.

There is a total lack of communication and absent or defective speech. Boys are more prone to autism than girls. It has been seen that infants as old as three months display signs of autism by not smiling or responding to  voices and facial cues.

An autistic child perceives his environment as chaotic, oppressive and finds an inner sanctum in retreating into his shell. Because of their gross inability to communicate they are reticent and extremely shy. They abhor social contact and may experience anger, aggression and frustration at any kind of forced contact. They shun love from their care givers as they have not experienced or understood healthy emotions. In appearance they appear dishevelled with muted, uncoordinated movements. Despite the despair experienced by parents of autistic children there is still help and with kindness, care and discipline they can be managed and integrated into the society.


The first step to inculcating discipline in an autistic child is understanding his behaviour and eliminating difficult and extreme behavioural patterns. Day to day events, people and the rigmarole of daily life may be too oppressive to them. This may cause tremendous anxiety in them and may cause them to act provocatively. Temper tantrums are their way of communicating what they do not absorb and understand. Reducing their disorientation and confusion requires discipline and intervention. One has to exercise extreme patience, caution and perseverance while dealing with them. This may take months or years but with time progress is generally seen.


The foremost step in disciplining autistic children is through communication. Without this vital ingredient any other approach would be futile. Autistic children are reserved and abstract thinkers with little interest in verbal or non verbal communication. But the following steps can be taken to hone their autistic skills. Enhance their ability to communicate by speaking to them with gestures, colourful pictures, painting, writing and poetry. Repetition while talking to them is a must as it helps facilitate understanding.

Use clear concise language and short sentences. Give plenty of instructions and ask questions. Start with simple, monosyllabic words and then move onto more structured words and sentences. Use positive reinforcement. Reward them by clapping, hugging or smiling. Help the child with his daily rituals like bathing, eating and wearing clothes. Make it interesting and fun filled. Stick to a time and schedule and do not waver on the timings. State what you want rather than what you do not want.

Social Integration

Autistic children do not understand societal nuances, decorum and etiquette. They do not understand physical contact or space. They find it difficult to interpret social rules and this may cause them to feel anxious. Allow them to learn manners and etiquettes through role modelling like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Teach them the importance of saying sorry when they have hurt someone. Have well thought-out consequences for undesirable behaviour. Rehearse these rules in different circumstances. Let them understand facial expressions which depict different emotions. Display good body language.

Adapting to the Environment

Children with autism do not tolerate a change in their routine so it is very important to stick to timings and indicate a start and finish of a routine. Teach them about dangers, harm and self inflicted injuries. In case there is an inevitable change in routine, allow them to get used to it gradually.

Discipline Strategies

Conventional discipline forms are generally not effective with an autistic child. He rarely does anything to seek attention or approval. On the contrary his temper tantrums maybe the direct result of an inability to understand his environment. For a sibling without autism, seeing his autistic brother or sister get away with bad behaviour may be difficult to comprehend. The sibling too must be taught to see his brother or sister as a ‘special needs’ child and to handle them with patience and care.

Photo Credit:

Ask them to help you out. Let the normal sibling play with the autistic child, teach him games or help him with his homework. One needs to observe what motivates and satisfies and autistic child. Quench his curiosity or need to explore if he shows signs of interest. Assist them through good role models and role play. Give them a lot of attention, love and care.

More Emphasis On Special Needs.

While disciplining autistic children it is important to remember that they need to be streamlined into society and become, mature, worthy and responsible adults and exhibit appropriate behaviours whether it is at home or outside. Do keep in mind the special needs of an autistic child. His understanding and ability to comprehend the environment cannot be like a normal child. He perceives pain and physical punishment very differently.

Hitting, using harsh words and scolding an autistic child is simply not recommended. It generally backfires and whatever steps you may have taken forward with an autistic child may get reversed. It may also give a wrong message to the child that aggression and hitting others are acceptable, societal behaviours. Since the child cannot reason out for himself there may be a possibility of indulging in self- destructive behaviour.

At the very core of an autistic child, one needs to see a qualified medical practitioner to solve any underlying sleep and medical problems. Structure the child’s activities in the same place and environment so as to breed familiarity. Oversee them diligently and do make it a point to consistently reward good behaviour. Gradually take the child out in the community and allow him to practice good behaviours.

Reinforcing Behaviour

Its perfectly acceptable to ignore disrespectful behaviour and reaffirm good behaviours. Some caregivers and counsellors of autistic children are known to use time outs to reinforce good behavioural patterns. The efficacy of this approach works when the child has started responding to social and verbal cues. However it is prudent to use these sparingly and exercise discretion. Feel free to say ‘No’ when the occasion arises and help the child with directions that certify compliance. Teach him to be able to listen to you and exercise obedience. When the child does something wrong, do not admonish him but gently explain to him alternative, acceptable responses.  Occasionally using sweets and toys to reinforce good behaviour is fine.

Important to Remember

It’s important to remember that disciplining an autistic child can be a monumental task and requires exemplary calm, expertise and empathy. Allow your activities to be goal oriented and let no behaviour goal be zero. Take support from the child’s parents and teach them coping skills to help them with their autistic child. Do not be afraid of disciplining them. Teach the parents to take help of autistic community group meetings. With time and perseverance autism in children can be completely cured.