Finding an effective way to discipline a special needs child is tricky business. So tricky, in fact, that some special needs parents forgo it altogether.
This week in Special Needs Living, aurorabunny, mom to 3-year old Brody, who has autism, discusses why she feels some kind of discipline is important, not only for her son and his future life experiences, but for other special needs children as well.
Saying Yes to Discipline: Special Needs Living
When you have a child with special needs, there's nothing worse than running into those uneducated people who think that any disability or condition is most likely really just a lack of discipline. We all know that type of thinking is totally bogus and that a lack of discipline most certainly does not cause autism or ADD or any other type of disability. That said, I have personally observed that for some reason, parents of children with disabilities seem less inclined to discipline as often (or at all) and perhaps that has further fueled the ignorant opinion that I referred to above. Because of this (and other reasons!), I think it is so important for those of us with special needs kiddos to remember that discipline and rules are just as important for our children as they are for neurotypical children.
In the past year as I have been around more and more parents who also have children with autism, I've been a little bit startled and also saddened by how much I've seen the whole "no discipline" routine. Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying that these parents aren't doing discipline the way that I think they should, or that they're doing it wrong; they're not doing it at ALL. I've witnessed far too many screams, slaps, bites, and kicks that are merely met with exasperated sighs and nothing more.
As I've chatted with other parents of children on the autism spectrum, I've gotten multiple explanations for what I've seen. Some moms have told me that they are far more hesitant to discipline their child around others who KNOW that the child has autism, which I understand. I've totally dealt with the "Don't you think you were a little hard on him? He IS autistic, after all..." spiel before, even from within my own family. Other moms have told me that their child isn't capable of understanding a punishment or that the discipline they're implementing doesn't work or seems pointless. This is the reasoning that I find bothers me the most. Besides the fact that a total lack of discipline sets our kids up to fail later on in life, I believe that it sends an underlying message: I have such LOW expectations of you and for what you can accomplish that I'm not even going to bother setting any rules for you to follow.
Figuring out what works and what doesn't for children on the spectrum and with other special needs can be particularly tricky, and rules may take quite a bit of enforcement before they actually stick. I know that we have to "think outside the box" quite a bit when dealing with Brody and his behaviors. We don't spank in our house, and time-outs for a child like my son who prefers to be left alone and not be forced to interact really comes off as more of a reward than a punishment. But direct reinforcements, like no dessert or no TV, have proven to work very well for us. And when all else fails, a big fat NO from my husband or me really works like a charm. I've yet to meet a child who couldn't eventually understand what "no" means, and when people say that their child is incapable of learning the meaning of the word, I admit that I find myself rolling my eyes.
Just a few months ago we were having a mini-playdate at my house with another mom and her son who also has autism. During a toy squabble, I saw Brody reaching his hand back to dole out a good whack to the little boy who was playing the part of toy hoarder, and I started walking his way to intercede when a funny thing happened. With his little hand still up in the air, I could see the wheels turning in his brain as he thought about what he was getting ready to do. He put his hand down and walked away to find another toy. You'd better believe I was proud. Will I admit that there's a chance my son doesn't really understand WHY we aren't supposed to hit people? Sure. Do I want him to go around hitting people for the next few years while he's trying to figure that out? No way. The boy understands what NO means, and for now, that's good enough for me.
We still have horrible behavioral days, public temper tantrums, and plenty of days when I wonder why I even bother talking. But we're never going to give up on the discipline front. My son may have autism, but he still has a whole lot of potential and I plan to continue expecting great things from him, in the behavior department and in all aspects of his life.
How do you handle discipline with your special needs child?