Kicking, biting, scratching, screaming, head-banging! If you work with a child with autism or have one of your own, these behaviors are a part of everyday life. Knowing how to respond is really one of the toughest and most frustrating aspects of life with these kids. It’s also really puzzling; if only you could understand why. Why does he do it, and how can I help?
I really believe that at the root of a child’s difficult behavior is his attempt to regain a sense of significance and belonging. What I mean is that even your child on the autism spectrum has to know that what he does matters in life, and also that he has a place of meaning and importance in your world. So, what does that have to do with discipline?
When your child isn’t feeling that he has an impact on the world around him and that he isn’t connected with you, he will begin to feel discouraged. When he’s discouraged, he acts out and will do anything he can to try and feel like he does matter again, that he is important to you. That’s where we see the kicking, biting, head-banging, and screaming. It’s his desperate plea to regain his sense of belonging to you, and the sense that what he does matters.
So how do we help him regain a healthy feeling of importance to you? How can we help encourage that sense of significance and belonging and also stop the behavior? The answer lies in discipline, but it’s not what you’re thinking. The word “discipline” carries so much negative baggage, and brings to mind images of punishment, consequences, and time-outs. But really, discipline, in its original Latin form, disciplina, means “teaching; learning”. When I discovered this meaning, it changed everything in the way that I approach kids’ behavior.
So, I want to offer you three ways that you can use positive discipline to stop the behavior, help your child reconnect to you, and feel important and valuable again.
Three Ways to Use Positive Discipline to Help Your Child
1. Take time for training.
If discipline truly means to teach, then we need to take the time to train our children. Maybe he needs to learn about some options of how to respond to an unpredictable change in events. Perhaps he needs you to teach him how to do the task that led to his frustration in the first place. It is very helpful to back up and break tasks down into smaller steps. Once broken down, teach each step along the way, so that he knows what to do and feels confident doing it. Use visuals and social stories that talk about each component so that everything is clear. Then you will need to practice, practice, practice with him until he can do it on his own.
2. Show him how to do it, but don’t do it for him.
Model what you want him to do, and wait patiently for him to do it. Many children will respond very abruptly if we try to “motor” them through the action, so simply model and wait. If he isn’t responding to you, try gently guiding him to do the action, but be sensitive and responsive to what he is communicating. If he’s receptive and needs more guidance, continue to guide him. If you sense his resistance, gently fade your support and wait patiently for him to initiate again. A visual sequence that demonstrates each step along the way is a helpful way to show him exactly how to do what you are teaching. This, along with your gentle, loving guidance will help him know what to do instead of melting down.
3. Empower your child by getting him to help you.
All kids want to feel useful and we can aid them in achieving this by simply giving them something helpful to do. This can be as simple as finding the smallest task that he can help with and giving the guidance to do it. Perhaps getting into the car for errands is really difficult for him— next time, try getting him to help you with the “special job” of carrying the keys from the front door to the car, or have him help you carry the bags needed for shopping. Helping in this way will give him the sense that he has an important role in that routine and that he is really capable of doing something useful.
So, when we understand that our little ones are not just misbehaving and being difficult, but rather trying desperately to connect with us and feel important again, it changes everything. Instead of reacting and using tactics of blame and shame, we can see that they really need us to teach them what to do, guide them by the hand, and help them feel strong and capable. Instead of feeling dis-couraged, your kiddo will feel en-couraged. When he is encouraged, he feels whole and complete and his needs are being met. He no longer has a need to act out and you are both connected.
How about you? How are you using discipline to teach your children important skills? Let us know in the comments.
Photo courtesy of Joanne Escober