wikiHow to Discipline an Autistic Child

Five Methods:Approaching Discipline in a Child-Centered WayCreating Routine to Reduce Discipline NeedsSpecific Discipline StrategiesCreating a Reward SystemUnderstanding the Cause of the Bad Behavior

It can be difficult for a parent to determine the best way to manage their child’s unwanted behaviour. This can be even more difficult when the child is autistic. It is important that as a parent of an autistic child, you recognise that discipline is more than just punishing a child for “naughty” behaviour, but modifying bad behaviour into something more constructive.

Method 1
Approaching Discipline in a Child-Centered Way

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    Don't forget that, above all else, an autistic child is a child. Any given child has their own preferences, quirks, behaviors, and reactions. Any child has things they don't like, and things they do. Being autistic doesn't change this. Any discipline techniques you use should approach difficult behavioural situations with understanding. Focus on providing your child the support they need to control themselves and turn "naughty" behaviour into more constructive actions.
    • Like any child, autistic children can misbehave. Children don't always follow the rules, and sometimes all kids have trouble controlling themselves when they're upset. Being autistic shouldn't constitute a "free pass" from following the rules, but on the flip-side, autistic children also shouldn't be punished for how they express themselves. True discipline involves teaching self-control and how to get your needs met in a constructive way.
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    Be patient. While at times you may become frustrated when trying to understand your child’s behavior, it is important to remember that patience is key. With time, with use of the strategies covered below, your autistic child will learn better ways to behave. This won't happen overnight.
    • Remember that autistic children experience challenges such as sensory problems and barriers with communication. This can be very frustrating for them sometimes.
    • Keep in mind that autistic children's listening body language may look different from the listening body language of non-autistic children. Stimming, looking in other directions, and not appearing to respond doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't listening.
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    Stay positively focused. Remember that a lot of ‘discipline’ involves encouraging the correct behaviour in your child, as opposed to punishing the wrong behaviour. Work with your child to identify what is not acceptable and present them with alternatives that are (covered below). The more you reinforce the good behaviours, the more frequently it will be applied by your child. If the behaviours continue, it is beneficial to see a behaviour specialist to bring up your concerns.[1]
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    Handle meltdowns with care. A lot of what you might think of as "bad behaviour" in autistic children comes in the form of meltdowns. This can be particularly difficult to react to with younger children or others who don't use verbal communication to express when they're upset. What may look like a "bad behaviour" tantrum in some can actually be an attempt to express their needs, deal with unsettling sensory experiences, or handle stress.
    • Ideally, you want to create a plan to help teach the child to avoid meltdowns themselves. Classic "disciplinary" tactics that focus on punishment, like time-outs, can make things worse by upsetting the child further and removing any sense that they have control over their decisions. Instead, teaching a child to take a “break” and introduce self-calming techniques empowers the child to manage their time and emotions and encourage the child to self-regulate.
    • How to Deal with Autistic Children's Meltdowns and How to Reduce Meltdowns and Tantrums in Autistic Children can help further with meltdowns in particular.
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    Do not yell at your child. Shouting at your child, trying to control them, or displaying too much of authority can make him/her anxious and confused. When facing anxiety, children may become very restless and agitated. They can start showing temper tantrums, yelling or screaming. Therefore, it is important to keep your voice lowered, even if you are very frustrated.[2]
    • It is okay to buy yourself time. Try saying "I'm really frustrated. I need some time to figure out what I'm going to do about this."[3]
    • They might also show self-harming behaviors like banging their heads against something. Discuss replacement behavior with a therapist, so the child has an alternate way to relieve stress.

Method 2
Creating Routine to Reduce Discipline Needs

Consistency both in everyday life and discipline helps children know what to expect, and is an important part of being an effective parent.

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    Have a set and established routine and structure. Create set places where activities occur. A general routine within your child’s life is essential for them to make sense of the world and feel secure. When you create a routine, you will also be able to narrow down the reasons why your child might be acting out.
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    Use "picture schedules" to create order. Picture schedules help to explain which activity the child will do next. Picture schedules are wonderful tools parents can use to help guide some autistic children through different activities they will undertake during the day. It helps improve structure in a child’s life particularly when children with autism can have difficulty keeping an overview of their daily activities. Some ideas for ways to use picture schedules include[4]:
    • You and your child can keep track of tasks by “ticking off” completed activities.
    • You and your child can keep a clock or a light-up timer near the activities to determine the time frame for each activity (if this helps the child).
    • Help your child to design and draw these pictures so that he or she feels more of a connection with the images.
    • Keep the images in a book or on a board or wall so that your child can refer to them when he or she wants to.
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    Be consistent with the schedule. This helps the child feel secure. If a change needs to be made, give the child warning and an explanation, so it feels less jarring. Work together with other caretakers (such as teachers and therapists) to create a consistent system.[5]
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    Adapt the schedule in small ways as your child grows. While the schedule should remain relatively consistent, this does not mean there is no room for development of your child’s activities and discipline as your child makes their natural progression in development and growth as an individual.
    • For example, you may have scheduled exercise as the after lunch activity. However if your child gets a sore tummy every time, they may begin to act distressed before each exercise session. This does not mean that you must follow through with the scheduled activity in fear that it will ‘confuse’ your child if the schedule gets changed. Instead, things can be modified to best meet the needs of your child. As such, the schedule can be changed so that exercise comes before lunch. Discuss the change with your child so that (s)he understands it.
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    Ensure there is sufficient supervision for your child. This includes recognizing when and where your child needs “down time” (for example after school). Down time is particularly relevant when your child feels there is too much going on and their senses have been overloaded. When your child becomes distressed or upset because of this over-stimulation, this indicative of the need for down time. Simply take your child to a safe, quiet place and allow your child to ‘relax’ in a simple environment under casual supervision. An example is letting the child draw in a quiet room while you sit nearby reading a book.
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    Resolve any sleep or medical problems. If your child is not getting sufficient sleep or is suffering pain or ill health, it would be natural for them to express their distress which may be misconstrued as “problematic behaviour”.

Method 3
Specific Discipline Strategies

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    Create a direct relationship between the discipline and the problematic behavior. It is very important to discipline your child immediately after the bad behavior has occurred. Sometimes, it is smart as a parent to pick your battles. If you wait too long to administer the punishment, your child may get confused about what they are getting punished for. If the time has passed where the child could not attribute the punishment to the specific behavior, it is better to let the matter go.[6]
    • If your child learns well through visual tactics, create a series of pictures that explains how their bad behavior leads to punishment and good behavior leads to rewards. Doing this will help your child understand the relationship between bad behavior and discipline.
    • Also explain the relationship between good behavior and its positive consequences, such as "If you put your toys in the box, you'll always know where to find them, and the family room will look nice and be easy to use." This helps the child envision alternatives to bad behaviour and understand why they are expected to do something.
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    Have different grades of discipline. Do not rely on one single punishment or type of punishments. There must be a scale whereby the punishment is administered according to the severity of the behavior.
    • Give a verbal warning to give them a chance to correct themselves. "Jacob, no hitting."
    • Try natural consequences—if the child throws their toys, they must pick up the toys.
    • Consider loss of rewards or privileges, such as no TV time. (Make sure that this does not interfere with their special interests, as this may cause too much distress to be effective.)
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    Know that consistency in discipline is essential. Your child needs to make the association that unwanted behaviour will lead to unwanted results and that these undesirable outcomes will be followed up no matter who administers the discipline.[7]
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    Choose the discipline forms that you think will work best for your child. Once you have worked to understand what discipline would work best for your child, pick several and stick with them. For example[8]:
    • Refuse to give in to bad behavior. This gives the child the message that their behaviour is not acceptable. Clearly explain that it is counterproductive (for example, "I can't understand you when you shout. Would you like to calm down for a while and then tell me what's wrong?").
    • Patiently remind the child of self-calming strategies to use, such as taking deep breaths and counting. Offer to use the strategies together.
    • Use the loss of rewards as a consequence. If a child is behaving inappropriately, the loss of a reward could be considered a form of punishment by that child.
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    Avoid disciplines that avoid physical pain, such as spanking, slapping, or exposure to intense stimuli. Responding to violence with more violence can reinforce in your child that it is okay to become violent when feeling upset. If you are very angry with your child, perform the same self-calming strategies that you would like your child to use. This encourages the child to mimic you when she feels angry or frustrated.
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    Criticize the behavior, not the child. Avoid labeling the child as “bad’ or “wrong”. Point out the incorrect behaviour to the child in an encouraging way to promote corrective action. For example, say to them:
    • “I can see you’re really upset about that, but yelling won't help. Would you like to do some deep breathing with me?"
    • “Why did you throw yourself on the ground? Were you upset about the grocery store?”
    • “Hitting other people is never okay. If you're angry, use your words, tell an adult, or take a break to cool off.”

Method 4
Creating a Reward System

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    Create a reward system that directly relates to good behavior. Similar to punishment, your child needs to have an understanding that as a direct result of their appropriate behaviour, they receive a reward (such as praise or gold stars). This, over time, creates behaviour modification and can help discipline a child.
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    Rank the activities your child likes the most, and which ones she likes the least. Grade the degree in which your child likes different activities or rewards from those they like a little bit to those they like the most. Create a list to keep track of this ranking. You can use these activities to reward desired behaviour in children or when they stop a particular negative or inappropriate behaviour.
    • Though this may initially sound like a “bribe”, it is in fact not so when applied correctly. The application of the reward system needs to be based on rewarding the correct behaviour, not for stopping bad behavior.
    • Use this technique casually and sparingly. For example, "I'm really proud of how you handled yourself in that noisy store. We have some free time this afternoon. Would you like to read picture books with me?"
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    Be open to new ideas about disciplining and rewarding your child. Each child is different and each autistic child is different. What may be considered a punishment or “boring” for one child could be the ultimate reward for an autistic child, and vice versa. Therefore it is essential to be creative and open to new ideas about both punishment and reward concepts in the area of discipline.[9]
    • Qualification: always think carefully about discipline before implementing it. Would you be comfortable doing the same thing to a non-autistic child? If not, then that discipline practice may do more harm than good.
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    Set up a reward system. There are several ways you can do this, but two of the top reward systems include:
    • Creating a behaviour chart in which good behaviour is rewarded through a sticker or mark on the chart. If the child receives enough marks on the chart they get a reward. Offer to involve your child by letting him/her place the sticker.
    • Token reward systems are a very common system that is implemented. Essentially, good behaviour is rewarded with a token (sticker, a chip etc). These tokens can then be changed at a later time for rewards. This system is often designed through a contract with the child as to their behaviour and as such can be difficult to implement for much younger children.
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    Praise your child. Speak clearly in a quieter tone when rewarding your child. Being too loud can overstimulate or upset them. Praise the effort as oppose to the outcome. This includes praising them for working towards achieving a goal. Recognising your child’s persistence and efforts is of more value to your autistic child than the result.
    • If your child doesn't understand spoken words, add a small reward with your praise.
    • Showing sincerity and delight in your child’s correct behaviours increases the frequency of those behaviours.
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    Give your child sensory rewards. These are sometimes more difficult to administer as rewards, but a great reward includes one that also correctly promotes sensory activity. However, be careful not to overstimulate your child, as this may upset them. Rewards could include:
    • Sight: Something the child likes to look at e.g. a new library book, a water fountain, animals (fish especially are good), or watching a model airplane fly.
    • Sound: soft calm soothing music of simple gentle instruments e.g. piano, or singing a song.
    • Taste: This reward is more than just eating. It includes tasting different foods they like--an assortment of sweet fruits, something salty and any variety of something which your child views as pleasurable.
    • Smell: have different smells for your child to distinguish: eucalyptus, lavender, orange, or different flowers.
    • Touch: Sand, ball pit, water, food packaging e.g chip packet, bubble wrap, jelly or play dough.

Method 5
Understanding the Cause of the Bad Behavior

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    Keep in mind that children with autism think ‘concretely’. This means they often take things literally and as such you need to be careful how you speak to them. Before you can discipline your child, you must understand why your child is acting out. If you don’t understand the cause, you may discipline them in a way that, to them, actually reinforces the bad behavior.
    • For example, if your child is acting out at bedtime and you are not sure why, you may choose to put her in time out. However, a “time out” could in fact be rewarding the child if her goal is to put off going to bed for as long as possible. Through discipline without understanding the cause, you are actually showing her that if she misbehaves at bedtime, she will get to stay up later.
    • Sometimes children act out because of an external stressor that they don't know how to handle (e.g. screaming and crying because of loud music that hurts their ears). In these cases, it's best to remove the stressor, discuss coping and communication strategies, and forego punishment.
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    Understand the purpose behind your child’s behavior. When an autistic child displays a bad behavior, that behavior is actually serving a purpose. By understanding your child’s purpose, you can figure out how to prevent the unwanted behaviour and work towards replacing it with more appropriate actions.
    • For example, your child may want to avoid something or a situation so they may “act out” to avoid the situation. Or, they may be trying to get attention or gain something else. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which is your child’s end goal--you will have to observe your child to fully understand.
    • Sometimes children act out without any particular goal; they simply don't understand how to handle their stress. Sensory issues, hunger, sleepiness, not enough down time, etc. may be the cause of this.
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    Figure out what specifically is causing the bad behavior. One key clue to figure out which your child is doing (avoiding a situation or seeking attention) is if your child consistently “misbehaves” given a particular scenario. If the child is behaving ‘unusually’ for an activity they typically enjoy, then this could be indicative they they’re seeking more attention.[10]
    • For instance, your child may “act out” when it is time for a bath. If she does this right before or during bath time, you can conclude that she is acting badly because she does not want to take a bath.


  • Remember that the above suggestions do work but can vary depending on your child’s specific needs.
  • If your child melts down in overstimulating environments such as grocery stores and crowded malls, your child may have sensory processing disorder. Sensory integration therapy can help increase your child's tolerance of painful stimuli.
  • Remember that your child is a human being. Trust your instincts and don't treat an autistic child in a way that you wouldn't feel comfortable treating a neurotypical child.


  • Remember that some forms of ABA and other therapies come from an abusive culture, and specialists may recommend harmful discipline. Never use discipline that would be considered abusive, manipulative, or overly controlling if it were used on a non-autistic child.
  • Overuse of reward or punishment systems may harm your child's ability to think for themselves and like things. Make sure that your child can still access things they like without "earning" them first, and that discipline systems don't micromanage their lives.
  • For best results on implementing the above techniques, it is recommended to speak with your doctor about a referral to a good behavioural therapist who specialises in autistic children.

Sources and Citations

  1. Myers S.M, & Johnson C.P (2007) Management of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics. 120(5):1162–82
  2. Barlow, D.H. & Durand, V.M. (2009) Abnormal Psychology: An integrative approach (5th edn). Wadsworth: CA.
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Article Info

Categories: Behavioral Issues | Coaching Autistic People