What is discipline?
Discipline is about helping your child learn how to behave in appropriate ways in different situations. It’s also about helping your child understand how not to behave.
Discipline and discipline strategies are positive. They’re built on talking and listening. They guide children towards behaving in appropriate ways. They do this by helping children:
- understand what behaviour is appropriate and inappropriate – whether it’s at home, a friend’s house, child care, preschool or school
- develop skills like the ability to get along well with others, now and as they get older
- learn to understand, manage and express their feelings.
Discipline works best when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child.
I blamed myself for my son’s inappropriate behaviour in public. But my son’s psychologist helped me understand that the way he was acting was sometimes related to the difficulties his autism causes him, not to me being an inadequate parent. I also learned that many of the techniques I already knew would be useful. I felt empowered again.
– Mother of three children, including an autistic son
Discipline strategies for autistic children and teenagers
The following discipline strategies can guide all children towards appropriate behaviour and away from inappropriate behaviour:
- praise and rewards for appropriate behaviour
- clear rules about behaviour
- positive consequences for appropriate behaviour
- negative consequences for inappropriate behaviour
- everyday and social skills for handling unfamiliar or difficult situations.
These discipline strategies are explained below, along with some ways that you can adapt them to your autistic child’s development and understanding.
Physical punishment – for example, smacking – isn’t a good choice for discipline. It doesn’t help children learn about self-control or appropriate behaviour. Smacking can send the message that smacking or hitting other people is an OK way to deal with strong feelings. There’s also a risk that smacking might hurt your child. Children who are smacked are more likely to have challenging behaviour, anxiety or depression.
Praise and rewards for appropriate behaviour
Praise is when you tell your child what you like about their behaviour. When your child gets praise for behaving well, your child is likely to want to keep behaving well.
Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you’re praising. Descriptive praise is best for encouraging good behaviour – for example, ‘Thank you for staying calm when you didn’t win the game’.
Many autistic children like praise and want to behave well to get more praise. But some autistic children don’t respond to praise. If your child tends to withdraw from other people, your child might not be motivated to do things to please others. Or if your child has limited language, your child might not understand the positive words you’re using.
You can help your autistic child learn to respond to praise. At first you might need to add something to help your child link positive words with things your child likes. This could be something to play with or an activity. After a while, your child might eventually enjoy the praise on its own.
Clear rules about behaviour
Rules are positive statements that let children know how they’re expected to behave and what your family limits are.
The rule might be that your child can’t play in the morning until they’re ready for school – for example, ‘First get ready, then have playtime’. You could use a visual support like a timer to show your child how long there is until you need to leave for school. When your child has finished getting ready, they can play for the time left on the timer. If the timer has finished, there’s no time to play.
Positive and negative consequences for behaviour
A consequence is something that happens after your child behaves in a particular way. Consequences can be:
- positive – for example, your child gets more time at the park if they get ready to leave the house
- negative – for example, the toy is put away for 10 minutes if your child is throwing it.
You can use both positive and negative consequences to guide your child’s behaviour. But it’s always best to focus more on giving your child positive attention for behaving in ways that you like. This usually means you’ll need to use negative consequences less.
Quiet time and time-out are useful consequences. Both involve taking your child away from interesting activities and not giving them attention for a short period of time.
Time-out might not work if your child tends to be withdrawn. It could end up being a reward rather than a negative consequence if it gives your child time alone.
Everyday and social skills for unfamiliar and difficult situations
Sometimes autistic children and teenagers might seem like they’re behaving inappropriately. But actually they don’t have the skills to handle unfamiliar or difficult situations.
For example, your child doesn’t say hello to someone. Your child isn’t being rude on purpose – they might not know they should say hello. Your child might start hitting something because a particular noise is upsetting them. Or your child might smear poo on the wall because they like the warmth and texture of it, not because they want to upset you or do the wrong thing.
Strategies like role plays, video modelling and social stories can help autistic children develop social skills. They can also help autistic teenagers develop social skills.
Breaking tasks into steps can help autistic children and teenagers learn everyday skills like how to get dressed or how to use deodorant.
Our articles on managing challenging behaviour in autistic children and encouraging cooperative behaviour in autistic children have more tips and strategies to help your child learn good behaviour.