Behaviour and Discipline issues for children with Autism

Children with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome have unique behaviour issues. The National Autistic Society has some simple and effective strategies for dealing with behaviour at home and in public.

Despite an estimated one in every 100 people in the UK having an autistic spectrum disorder, misconceptions about the condition are still rife in the general community. Why, with raised awareness in recent years, is it so difficult for us to understand what it means to have autism?

Part of the reason may be that there are many forms of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Also, adults and children with ASD have difficulty understanding the unwritten social rules of society - it’s easy to see how other people might misread their actions and take the wrong impression of the person and their disorder.

Parents of children with an ASD will find their needs differ dramatically from non-autistic children, and many find discipline the biggest challenge of all. Even between children with an ASD, one child’s behaviour issue may require a completely different strategy from another's. For that reason, don’t despair if some of these techniques don’t work with your child – be persistent and patient and you’ll eventually find something that works.

You can read other experiences in our related articles - Understanding Autism - one Mum's story and Autism - a parent's perspective.

Behaviour difficulties

Traditional discipline will not work for a child with an ASD. Children with an ASD are unable to understand the consequences of their actions, so punishment is likely to make behaviour worse and cause more distress for both parent and child.

  1. Safety is the first priority. Take your child out of the situation as soon as possible.
  2. Find out why your child is displaying this behaviour by using a behaviour diary. If the behaviour is recurring, it is possible that your child enjoys the reaction he gets from parents or teachers. Perhaps his yelling always sees him removed from an uncomfortable situation? If so he is likely to continue, as this could be a desired outcome. Concentrate on making the situation more comfortable for him.
  3. Focus on the positive. Instead of punishment, give lots of praise when he does something well and use a Reward Chart to encourage good behaviour. Use positive language in a calm voice, and rather than telling him what you don’t want him to do, direct him to what he should be doing instead. For example, instead of saying “stop pulling your sister’s hair”, say “put your hand down”.

Obsessive Behaviour

Most children go through fads, but children with ASD often display obsessive and repetitive characteristics, which can have major implications for behaviour. If a child is obsessed with a particular cartoon character, for example, they may become very distressed if the DVD stops working or they are interrupted for any reason.

Find out what the child gets out of the obsession by using a behaviour diary. For example, they may enjoy the sensory pleasure or routine of flicking their fingers, or use it as a distraction from distressing social situations. 

  1. Set boundaries for the obsession. Tell your child they can speak about their obsession for half an hour after dinner time – and schedule that into their routine. Or use a Timer to show when DVD time starts and finishes.
  2. Use the obsession to motivate and reward your child for good behaviour. They could earn points (use a visual Reward Chart) towards a new toy train or collector card. Always ensure reward points are given immediately so your child makes the connection between good behaviour and their reward. 
  3. Teach your child about social interaction by showing them that other people do not share their obsession. Play a turn-taking game: they can talk about their obsession after you have talked about your own hobby for five minutes.

Discipline of children with ASD and their siblings

For a sibling without ASD, it can be difficult to understand why their brother or sister receives different treatment or appears to ‘get away with’ their bad behaviour.

  1. Explain ASD to siblings and classmates and encourage them to ask you questions about the disorder. See our Mums’ recommended resources below.
  2. Focus on how they can help their sibling. Give them a role, such as helping their brother with their homework, and give them plenty of attention when they behave well.

Sleep difficulties

Sleep issues are extremely common in children with ASD. Children with ASD may need less sleep, become anxious about bedtime, or may wake at night and wander around their room or house. 

  1. Make the room safe. If your child wakes at night, ensure they won’t injure themselves on sharp corners or stairs. See the National Autism Society's information sheet Creating an autism friendly environment.
  2. Keep a sleep diary for your child and find out why they are having sleep problems. Maybe their room is too hot, cold or dark? Perhaps they would prefer weighted bedclothes? 
  3. Use timetables and routines. List bath time, story time and sleep on a visual timetable and include a symbol for waking up. Some children find sleep scary because they don’t know what happens at the other end – show them that they will wake up in the morning. 
  4. Write a ‘social story’. Developed by Carol Gray in the US, Social Stories explain what will happen in different situations. Write a social story about sleep and dreams, and read this with your child over a few nights and weeks.

School behaviour

Children with ASD have most difficulty during ‘unstructured’ parts of the school day, such as lunch and free play time. They may not understand how to play team sports or interact socially with their classmates. For this reason, it helps to put structure in place for play time. 

  1. Create a buddy system. Ask teachers to find other (perhaps older) children who can each play a game or talk to your child for one lunch a week. 
  2. Ask teachers to create a timetable for lunch and play time, for your child. Perhaps this can include special jobs for example, they can water the garden, help in the lunch room or stack books in the library? 
  3. Explain the concept or provide a purpose of play time for your child, for example, “At 2pm we will play with a train set for half an hour”. See the National Autism Society's information sheet Understanding difficulties at break time and lunchtime.

Behaviour in Public

Children with ASD can be overwhelmed by a short trip to the supermarket or train station. While some parents can deal with the anxious or loud behaviour, many simply avoid public situations. Nevertheless, there are strategies that you can use to make your child more comfortable. 

  1. Give your child headphones so they can shut out the confusing sounds around them. 
  2. Prepare a timetable or map for the shopping trip with a shopping list to complete. For example, “At 4pm we will go shopping, and we are buying crisps and fruit” and so on. The map of the shopping aisles will help your child know what to expect, and once the shopping list is complete, this will indicate that the shopping trip is finished (don’t forget to add going to the checkout and going home to the timetable!). 
  3. Give your child a task to complete during the trip, using visual symbols to guide them. For example, they could be in charge of buying the bananas and oranges.

When disciplining children with ASD, it pays to be consistent. Make sure everyone involved in your child’s life is using the same strategies to deal with behaviour and discipline.

Try not to blame yourself for your child’s behaviour. Whilst it may often seem like your child’s behaviour is directed at you, it is not your fault. Their behaviour is not the result of bad parenting!

And finally, remember you are not alone. Thousands of other parents are going through similar experiences every day. Seek help and support organisations such as the National Autistic Society and talk to other parents whenever possible.

Related links

  • Parents' Guide to Autism: You’re familiar with the term, but how does autism actually affect a child? How can you tell if your child may be autistic? And what should you do if you see the signs…?
  • Autism - a parent's perspective: It took six frustrating years to get a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome for Claire’s eldest son Jack. Claire describes how her son’s autism affects the whole family, and offers her personal tips and resources for other parents.
  • Understanding Autism - one Mum's story: Wonder Mum Dawn Prowse is mother to eight children, two of whom are on the autistic spectrum. In this interview, she describes the process of diagnosis, treatment and support for her boys – and the relief of having a ‘label’ for her children’s behaviour.

Find out more

  • The National Autistic Society has a wealth of information and support for people with autism and Asperger Syndrome, their parents and carers.
  • Rayven's Rants is an excellent blog which answers some common questions from parents.

Related Advice