Advice for Overcoming the Strong Will of an Autistic Child

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The Defiant Ones

Parents of defiant children struggle to get their child’s behavior under control. Every day (sometimes every hour) seems to bring some new battle. Add a disability like autism into the mix, and the situation seems nearly impossible to rectify.

The parents of any special needs child know there are challenges that come with the disability. For example, some autistic children are prone to tantrums, outbursts, and even acts of aggression (hitting, kicking, spitting, and throwing objects). The longer this behavior is allowed to continue, the more difficult it becomes to change or stop it. When behavior begins to occur that parents can’t pinpoint solely on their child’s disability, a plan of action needs to be devised immediately

Below are some tips for overcoming the strong-will of an autistic child.

4 Tips Parents Should Know

Tip #1- Set Clear Boundaries

Be firm. No should mean no. Don’t let your child’s meltdowns, outbursts, or anger determine how you handle a situation. Even autistic children are capable of manipulation. If your child learns that screaming, crying, hitting, or self-injury will get him/her what he/she wants, it will become the preferred method of communication.

For example, if your family rule is no toys at the dinner table, hold firm. If your child comes to the table with a toy, take it away. Say_,_

“There are no toys allowed at the table when we eat. You may have it back when we’re done eating dinner.”

If your child gets upset, it’s okay - as long as he/she doesn’t pose any serious harm to you, him/herself. When he/she calms down, restate the rule, praise him/her…but, no toy!

When introducing new rules, use progressive discipline measures. For example if you want to teach your child to clean his/her room, you should start by helping him/her pick up the room each day. Then gradually move towards letting the child clean once or twice a week until the child can use an independent schedule or be verbally prompted to go clean up alone.

Tip #2 – Create Social Stories About the Behavior

A social story is a short story using pictures and words to describe appropriate behavior, explain a procedure, or teach something to a special needs child. The story should be short and concrete.

For example, your daughter refuses to try a new food. She screams and won’t eat or touch the food. First, create a story about the food. It might say something like this,

“Today for lunch I will have a sandwich and carrots. I will take 2 bites of carrot. If I eat my sandwich and two bites of carrot, then I will get one cookie as a treat. If I eat my sandwich and four bites of carrot, then I will get 2 cookies as a treat. If I don’t eat any carrots I won’t get any cookies.”

Include pictures of all the important objects in the social story. Read the story each time you plan to serve carrots. Each time she screams or cries say,

“It’s okay if you don’t want to eat the carrots. Remember no carrots, no cookie.”

Do not give the child any cookies if she doesn’t comply with the request to try the food, and don’t expect changes overnight. Changing behavior takes a lot of time and patience on your part.

Tip #3 – Be Consistent with Rewards and Punishments

Every parent wants to encourage his/her child. Sometimes we reward our children even though they fail to completely follow rules and procedures. This sends a very bad message.

When your child follows the rules, lavish him/her with praise and an appropriate reward. Make it clear the reward is a result of following the rules or showing good behavior. But when the child doesn’t follow the rule, enforce the consequences too.

If you use timeouts, make sure the child stays in the timeout area for the time stated when the punishment began. Use an alarm clock or timer to alert him/her when the time is up. Give positive feedback when he or she remains in timeout. Ignore screaming, yelling, or other misbehavior. If the child attempts to leave the area, escort him or her back each time until he/she stays in the area for the set time.

If you allow your child to escape punishment because of escalating misbehavior you are teaching him/her that bad behavior gets him/her what he/she wants.

Tip #4 – Consult a Professional

Sometimes parents must admit when they are in over their heads. Parents who have consistently tried to implement a behavior plan without success may need to get professional help. Contact your local autism or special needs agency for assistance. If your child is school age, get help from his/her teacher, the school district, or school psychologist.

Don’t be embarrassed to admit you need help. Some special needs agencies offer parenting classes, in-home behavior therapy or special programs and schools for your child. Reach out and find as many resources as you can to get your child the help he/she needs.

Overcoming the strong-will of an autistic child can be emotionally and physically draining on the entire family. The sooner you tackle getting your child’s behavior under control, the happier and healthier all of you will be.


Greenspan, Stanley I. and Serena Wieder The Child with Special Needs, Da Capo Press, 1998.