Discipline and Autism


Posted on : 1:51 PM | By : Anonymous | In : ,

Ok so I know that my daughter is not diagnosed. She is very high on the Aperger's spectrum of functionality. But I was reading an article in the New York Times today from a mother's point of view about the unvarnished day-to-day reality of autism. As I read this I thought, "This is my child!!!" She may be undiagnosed, but that is definitely her. At the end I even felt jealous that her son is at least cuddly - my Ana just isn't.

But one thing I did not identify with was her perspective on the situation. The behavior is the same but I feel quite differently, and I wanted to share my trial-and-error strategies for disciplining an Asperger's child. I was relieved to read the follow-up article from the point of view of an adult with autism because I felt like I was doing some thing right.

Like the mother, I too have taken parent training courses. I took the Triple P parenting course in a group and had one-on-one training with a mentor in my home. Previously my parenting style was quite laid back - I had read all about nonviolent communication and I felt that it was wrong to tell me child what to do because then I wouldn't be respecting my child. I didn't want to be coercive. What is wonderful is that those strategies absolutely work for my second child. I watched Super Nanny and found that a simple 2 minute time out now and then sets my middle child back on track.

But not my first darling daughter. Asperger's children cry out for Authority. Authority with a deep voice, black and white, do or do not. Authority that tells them what to do every minute of the day. This is because they are lost in a sea of overwhelming possibility and sensory input. She will push every single button I have, over and over and over a hundred times in a row, just to feel quite sure that nothing has changed. Change is evil to her, and if Mom has changed then everything in her universe falls apart. If I falter, if I fail in my consistency, which often happens in a busy household with two other children who have needs as well, then the screams and crying begin. Not normal crying, but the kind of crying that sounds like I am tearing her arms out. The kind that I worry someone will call the police some day, even though they would arrive to find that all that has happened is that her sleeves are too short or we had lunch a little later than usual.

So here is what works, so far. We have a chart that is simply a page of graph paper. Each time she allows her happy, helpful self to shine, she can put an X in the square of graph paper. If she lets the angry Ana take control I scribble an X out with an ugly black marker. She hates the perfect row of X's to be marred by the scribbly black marks. Ever time she gets 10 X's, I color a square bright pink. There is no reward at the end. We have tried bribery and that seems to sabotage the process. The reward is filling up the paper.

On top of this much of her behavior depends on my tone of voice and the way that I give her directions. Everything must be verbalized very specifically, in a positive way, and I do not allow any behavior that isn't... shall we say, socially acceptable, to pass unnoticed. For example, since Autumn was born she has had a habit of repeating Autumn's name continuously for hours. Now it has become it's own sound, something like, "Budabudabuda..." So every day I nip it in the bud. It doesn't work to say, in a frustrated voice, "Stop saying Autumn's name!!"

I have to state flatly, "You will stop saying Autumn's name and instead you will tell a story or sing a song." The command can't be more than two steps. Typical child development says that a child of 2 years old should be able to follow a two step command, and my three year old is now to three steps. Ana is incredibly academically intelligent, but usually can't follow more than 2 step commands.

What if it doesn't happen? There has to be a logical consequence of all anti-social behavior. Each time she repeats a behavior and I have to tell her again she gets a strike. Three strikes and she is 'grounded' for one hour in the school room where she is free to read or do projects. If she comes out of the school room (which she will do, repeatedly), she gets two strikes and then the time starts over. It typically takes her 4-6 hours to stay in the room for an hour.

One hour sounds harsh, especially for a six year old. This is because time outs don't work for her because they became a game. We have a stool in the kitchen for people to cool off for a few minutes. Autumn calls it the 'naughty spot'. It lasts for as many minutes as you are old, but Ana will repeatedly come off the stool just to make us put her back. I have spent days putting her back. I took a count one day and wrote in my journal that it was over 100 times, and by then it was bedtime. By making her walk to the school room herself and not interacting with her for an hour, she finally settles down and actually wants to be around people again. And she's not getting the satisfaction of my interaction through the process.

For example, while I am writing this it is quiet time. We did our school stuff, our chores, had lunch, and mom wants a couple of hours for some work so Autumn is reading quietly and Ana has the opportunity to find a quiet project or go outside. I gave her many suggestions and offered to set any of them up for her. The one stipulation was to leave Autumn alone, who isn't feeling well and requested time to herself. Here's what I had to say:

"Ana, you will choose one of these projects and go play quietly. Autumn will not be bugged and none of these have anything to do with her. If you cannot leave her alone and play quietly you will be grounded. If you listen to what I am saying happily and helpfully then you will get an X on your chart."

I have to admit I was getting frustrated. She was following Autumn around because she can't be independent or alone in a room, and I was trying to separate them. I had offered her lots of things to do but she was only interested in seeing how many things she could get Autumn to do for her, which is sort of her idea of playing. I had to take a deep breath and I told her that I was feeling frustrated. I had to think about how to phrase the instruction, which has to be, 'You will do X and X, or X will happen.' She has to be reminded of the consequences every time I give her an instruction. I do not believe it is healthy for a child to demand all of my time so she has to find something to do, or she has to face the consequence.

But, following this procedure, as difficult as it is to find that level of self-control, has improved her behavior dramatically in a very gradual way. I say dramatically because now she does things I say instead of throwing herself violently all over the place and never doing what I say. I never wanted to instill blind obedience in my children. I love her and her whimsical, curious, questioning personality, and I never wanted to feel like I was controlling her. But she craves it. She needs me to rule her life, for now anyway until I can help her learn to rule her own.

I feel very sad that parents feel so bitter against their child because of autism. I wouldn't change her for the world, and I know that somewhere in there her brilliant mind will spark on something and find some wonderful thing to contribute to the world. If it is Asperger's, and it probably is, I am grateful to it. It has made me stronger as a parent and allowed me to learn so much.

Comments (5)

Amen to your process with your Asperger's daughter. I struggled for twelve years with my son who also has Aspergers, and parenting rules don't apply. This year, I read Have a New Kid by Friday and the change has been dramatic. The key for me is not asking him to go somewhere, which just initiates a power struggle, but leaving the room and going somewhere else myself. And saying, "You're not being respectful." If he isn't respectful, then he doesn't get to do the things he likes to do, so when we identify (always calmly and as consistently as possible) the disrespect, then he gets to choose whether he changes. It has been transformative. I agree that it is a wonderful joy and a great learning experience to parent my younger son. I have told my husband repeatedly "You parent the child you have, not the one you want." I'm not sure he quite understands what I'm saying, yet. But we're getting there. Thanks for sharing your story.

Thanks so much for helping me feel like I'm doing something right, lol. It seems as though it's always a guessing game. I love your quilts by the way - beautiful!

Thank you. I love your blog.

My brother has not been diagnosed either, but much like your daughter the resemblance to Aspergers (or high functioning autism) is almost too blatant to deny. It has caused me to have a better understanding and begin working with autistic and behavioral special ed children.

Many of the autistic kids I worked with LOVE a schedule to the point of almost religious reliance. I found that by creating a picture schedule for my elementary kids they could begin to make choices (granted simple ones). We began by me making the complete schedule: a picture of a worksheet, a picture of group time, a picture of snack, a picture of an activity they liked, a picture of going home. The picture of the activity they liked changed every day however, as an attempt within public schools to try and have them understand that change occurs and provide coping strategies. After three weeks, they began to be able to choose the activity to place on the picture schedule. It was always done first thing in the morning and they had to stick to it (not a problem as you know). The choice was always from maybe three different activities that I had pulled out of the stack, but they had to choose. After initial frustrations, many came to a place of liking the behavior. It was a controlled choice and a beginning at personal gratification.

You might try it with your daughter if you are attempting to get her to start finding her own direction in the world. You probably know that most all autistic children have many of the same mannerisms, yet respond so differently to various types of mediation.

I don't know if this is more helpful or annoying, but I hear your frustrations and early mediation is so important. The phrase "this too shall pass" helped me many a time when I thought I would totally lose it :)

Thanks for the great schedule idea! I will definitely try doing this. :)