6-Step Approach to Disciplining a Child with ASD


It’s one of those moments you dread.

It’s the holidays, and your house is filled with relatives eating and chatting.

Suddenly something small and hard hits you in the cheek.

And then your head.

Your ten-year-old child is throwing crayons at you.

Now he steals a handful of crayons from one of the cousins and chucks them all right at you, while your visitors (and your mother-in-law!) stare.

What do you do?

The good news is that ABA offers some very successful methods to deal with this sort of situation.

It’s important to understand from the start that ABA is not a system of discipline, nor does it focus on discipline. Instead, ABA seeks to understand the why behind the unwanted behaviors, and the how for giving your child the tools they need to start choosing preferred behaviors.

Does that sound like more work than a quick spanking or time out? Yep. That’s because it is. But the long-term pay off will be so much greater!

Each child is unique and depending on where your child lands on the spectrum methods will need to be adjusted to fit the needs of each child. Please use this information as supplemental help while also working with a licensed ABA or BCBA therapist.

How to Correct Problem Behavior

Step 1. RECOGNIZE

Problem behaviors are generally the child trying to communicate something. Simply “punishing” the behavior won’t bring about long-term results.

A child with autism generally won’t respond to authority in the same way a neurotypical child would, and many traditional methods will likely backfire in the long run.

Strong reactions from you will probably reinforce the behavior instead of deter it. If your voice gets louder, your face turns red or you wave your arms you’re suddenly very interesting. Instead of feeling chastised, your child may be curious and repeat the behavior to see what kind of show you’ll put on next.

Step 2. REFRAME

Your interpretation of the “why” behind the behavior might be increasing your own anger… and it might be wrong.

It’s possible that what you observe as disrespectful might actually be your child’s reaction to physical pain or an inability to clearly express legitimate needs.

Step 3. RESEARCH

Look for patterns to see what your child might be trying to say. What happened immediately before the problem behavior? It might be as obvious as you refusing to buy a donut or as subtle as sensory overload each time Aunt Agatha hugs your child.

Step 4. REINFORCE & PUNISH

Behaviors have consequences. You will need to create a behavior plan that includes what we in the ABA professional community refer to as reinforcers and punishments in order to begin the change process.

Reinforcers are consequences that increase the likelihood of the behavior repeating. If your child knows that by not melting down in the store he gets to play with a favorite toy on the car ride home, the toy is the reinforcing consequence. It increases positive behavior.

Punishments are consequences that make your child less likely to repeat a behavior. If your child hits their sibling while playing with blocks, you remove access to what they want: the blocks and a playmate.

Step 5. REPEAT

Once your plan is in place, follow through. Consistency is the key to making this work, so you will need to repeat the same steps multiple times before you start to see a change.

Things will probably get worse before they get better, but if you persist it will work.

Step 6. REQUEST

Because autism has neurological roots some sensations are truly painful for your child.

In all likelihood, your child’s behavior is a visceral reaction to some kind of trigger. It’s worth putting in the effort to try to pin down what that trigger might be.

The solution to a major meltdown could be as simple as asking Aunt Agatha to avoid wearing perfume when she comes over.

But What Do I Do RIGHT NOW?

IGNORE … If you know the behavior isn’t in response to true physical pain, and the behavior is non-harmful, seek to ignore it. For example, if your child is throwing crayons at you get up and walk out of the room. Any verbal discipline or chastisement actually reinforces what your child most likely wanted…your attention!

After some time away from the child, return to the room and offer your presence.

REMOVE … Until you start practicing ABA principles at home and preparing your child for upcoming triggers, you may need to remove your child from the situation. This may mean that in the short term you leave the store without finishing your grocery list or your child goes to his room until visitors leave the house.

Remember… ABA is all about working toward long-term changes in behavior, and sometimes short-term solutions will only prolong the change process.

For some children time outs are effective both at home and in public. However, they are only part of the story and alone will not result in long-term change.

Spanking is highly discouraged when working with children with autism.

Why? Because your child’s final takeaway will be that when others do something they don’t like, they can respond physically. This can lead to hitting other children or throwing rocks on the playground when they are upset.

In addition, spanking fails to take into account the reality that your child may be acting out because he or she is truly in pain or experiencing a valid need.

Instead, we want to give our children the tools to respond to the situation appropriately and be able to tell us what is wrong.