Hoo boy–If I had the answer to that one, I could make a million bucks. I don’t mean there is NO answer, but THE answer is elusive. If you are reading this because you’re desperate for some help and advice right this moment, don’t despair. Roll your eyes, pull your hair out – but stay with me. Maybe some of what I have to say will help. I’ve been there, believe me – and even though right now we seem to be in an amazingly calm period with Rob, I’m sure we’ll be in the hair-pulling stage again…Rogaine, anyone?
Disclaimer: I can only write about my experience with our son, who has AS, and only tell you what worked for us; I do not claim that he is a typical Aspie or autistic child. But I think the same principles will apply to others, even to lower-functioning kids, too. I have read a lot and observed many other autistic children.
The first thing I think anyone had to take into account when thinking about disciplining an autistic child is that the word “discipline” means to teach. It does NOT mean punishment, especially physical punishment (spanking, etc). Trying to make an autistic child feel bad about his behavior (or lack of behavior, depending upon the situation) is not helpful. As I said in a previous post, autistic kids are not particularly motivated to please others, and for some of them, negative attention is rewarding. And many of them don’t process sensory stimulation well, so yelling or spanking may either hurt way too much, or they may not even feel it. So punishment is counter-productive. Focus on teaching them.
However, as anyone who works with an AS or autistic child knows, they can be notoriously hard to teach. So before I even begin to think about disciplining my child in a given situation, I have to think first, what is getting in the way of what we want him to learn here? What are the potential obstacles to his learning?
For our son, his sensory issues and the accompanying hyperactivity, anxiety and frustration were the first obstacle. Second came his lack of comprehension about what we wanted him to do. Third were communication issues – his acting out behavior had a purpose, and sometimes it was to communicate. We had to teach him to communicate in a more acceptable way. Fourth came his lack of motivation, because he couldn’t necessarily see the importance of what we asked him to do. I’ll take these in order in subsequent posts; but first, just let me give you a glimpse of the hell we went through before we had a diagnosis and knew what we were dealing with (ages 2-6).
How do you discipline a tornado?
When our son was between 2 and 6, we called him Mr. Destructo and the Maurauding Baby (to ourselves, of course). He was in constant, destructive motion: before he could crawl, he rattled his crib until it fell apart; he picked at the mattress until the cover was torn off. He threw his toys, he pinched other kids. He didn’t crawl long, but went right to running and climbing, after which he was always throwing, banging, tearing, jumping, hitting, and destroying things. In five minutes while I had my back turned trying to teach my daughter something, he would do ALL of this (at age 2): go into the living room, pull the covers off the couches, throw the pillows on the floor, sweep anything on the coffee table onto the floor, break anything breakable; go into our bedrooom, pull the blankets off the bed, empty the garbage can, scatter anything left lying out on the bed, dump drawers into the floor; go into our bathroom and take all the TP off the roll; go into his sister’s room, pull all the toys and books off the shelves, etc. And this would happen 7-8 times a day. Anything that was not locked up or bolted down he threw around. We of course locked everything up and put latches on all the doors, but inevitably we would forget at times during the day. He was also aggressive – banging his head, jumping onto people, hitting or pinching. And of course, we were in a conservative homeschooling group of Christians (I was homeschooling my daughter Joy – who, btw, was very strong-willed; but she responded to discipline: spanking and time outs worked with her). We even happened to be taking a class called “Growing Kids God’s Way.” What is God’s Way with a kid like Rob? The course is big on routine and structure. We did all of that with Rob: regular meals, schedule, bathtime, bed. Train them to sit still. Ha! But he made a shambles of it every single day. He needed constant attention and vigilance. But when I tried playing with him, he wouldn’t play. He liked it when I made faces and talked to him, but he wouldn’t play along. Just watch. Same with peek-a-boo. If I sang to him, he wouldn’t do the motions. If we played with blocks, he just wanted to stack them up or line them up – and I couldn’t help. He just wanted me to watch – but if I talked to him or touched any of them, he would throw them at me, sometimes right in my face, hard. If I burst into tears he would laugh. I took him to toddler gym class – he wouldn’t participate in the group singing, but loved the physical activities – but had a really hard time waiting his turn. He was always wanting to run and jump and throw things. If I took him to the park, he would run away from me – far away – and never look back or slow down. He hated playing in sand or water. He would scream if he got wet.
I can just hear Michael Savage now – what a brat! (Maybe if we had tried calling him a moron? Screaming at him)? So what exactly DID we do? First, what DIDN’T work:
This behavior had started when he could crawl, so at first, I tried saying no and slapping his hand. Hard. It hurt me, for crying out loud. He was just a baby, not even walking. But the next time I turned my back he would be at it again – or even in front of me, as soon as I put him down. By the way, he couldn’t bear to be held much. We would put him in a playpen and he would pick it to pieces, and learned to climb out before he was a year old. So we tried spanking his hand harder. When he got to age 2 we tried spanking his butt – hard. With a wooden spoon, or a slipper. First with his diaper on; then, as that failed to deter him, without. Nothing worked. We tried talking to him. Nada. We tried singing, and distracting him. He would not be distracted. We tried time out: he accepted the punishment, but went right back to the behavior as soon as we were finished. I tried having him go around with me, making him pick up (or helping me pick up) and put everything back in place. He would do it, but then destroy something again when I turned my back. Whenever he hurt someone, we gave him time out, and then he had to apologize (after he could talk, which wasn’t until age three). We tried keeping him in his room with a child gate – but you couldn’t leave him out of your sight. He would pick the bed apart, pull thread out of the carpet, kick the walls, bang his head, rattle his crib, throw his toys around the room, try to pull the electrical cords out of the sockets (we had them covered with screw-in plates – so he pulled a cord until it tore and he was holding a live wire). After that, no lights in his room except the ceiling bulb. Then he discovered that he could throw things through the multi-paned window: he liked the sound of breaking glass. So soon everything in his room was locked in the closet. We gave him one toy at a time. He would destroy it. He soon learned to unlatch the child gate or climb over it. By then, as you can imagine, we had also tried yelling. We tried prayer. Nothing worked. We also had international students living with us, so we had people coming and going frequently. I asked them to remember to latch the front door – but they would forget – and then he would be off across the street to the park, chasing the pigeons (at age 2)! I was trying to homeschool my daughter, which was a joke, because I couldn’t concentrate on her. He refused to play with toys or occupy himself at all. And you can just imagine the looks from the other homeschooling moms at the meetings, or at play days in the park.
We were at our wits’ end. We couldn’t go anywhere, we lost most of our friends, and of course everyone suggested we weren’t disciplining him enough. We were exhausted, humiliated, angry. We tried special diets. We went to see a behavioral specialist, and a behavior modification program helped get some of it under control; he was diagnosed with ADHD. He was put on meds at age 4 – the ADHD specialist said he was the worst he had ever seen.
We had his hearing tested; it was fine. We had him assessed for public special needs preschool, but because he was verbal and obviously intelligent, he didn’t qualify. Fortunately there was a private special needs preschool in the area, so we sent him at age 4. The structure seemed to help him. But he would sometimes cover his ears and scream at certain noises. He threw tantrums about his clothes, refusing to wear some and refusing to take off others. He would refuse to be bathed and screamed and bit about having his teeth brushed. He didn’t cooperate in the group singing and activities, but he would do the individual ones gleefully. He liked story time. At home, the only time he would sit still was if I read to him – so we spent a lot of time reading together. But he wouldn’t play games, play peek-a-boo, play with toys, play pretend. We managed to get him to kindergarden, where the bad behavior intensified again. We were out of options. Eventually (and it is a long harrowing story) he was diagnosed with autism at age 5and 1/2, and the physical therapist at the school recommended that he be tested for sensory integration issues. She gave me a book to read, and I burst into tears when I read it – it described him exactly. And it told us what to do for him.