Disciplining a Child with Autism: Effective Strategies

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Children with autism have a large number of stereotypical and maladaptive behaviors. Moreover, they are not able to pick up skills easily and learn through imitation like other children their age. Thus it is very important to teach and discipline a child with autism. However, the usual techniques that we use with children may not be effective. Here are a collection of researched and proven techniques that are effective to train and teach children with autism.

Positive Interactions

Teachers and caregivers must develop a positive relationship with the child to be able to teach them, and help them. This can be done through positive interactions. Positive interactions refer to building a rapport with the child by engaging the child in his or her favorite activities, and responding to the gestures used by the child to express his or her desires. This helps to build trust - a basis for any intervention.

Behavioral Assessment

A behavioral assessment is the first step to disciplining a child. The child’s behaviors need to observed and analyzed. We must try to find the cause of the behaviors.

Is it attention seeking, is the child seeking a tangible reward, is it an escape strategy, or is the task too difficult? For children with autism, the lack of communication skills can lead to some behavior problems. Furthermore, sensory issues may be the cause of a lot of repetitive and stereotypical behaviors.

Positive Reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to teach new behaviors and to increase the occurrence of an adaptive behavior. Every time a child does something good, like maintaining eye contact, or playing with a toy instead of throwing it, reinforce that behaviour by giving the child something they like or enjoy. Children with autism usually do not appreciate social reinforcers, and instead prefer activity based reinforcers, or a favorite toy or object. They may also like to have sensory experiences as reinforcers like a few minutes with the swing, or holding a toy that gives them a tactile sensation, or even a long hug. You may need to try out different reinforcers to find which one works best for your child.

Teaching Adaptive Behaviors to Replace Non Adaptive Behaviors

One of the best ways of disciplining a child with autism is to teach them adaptive behaviors that replace non-adaptive behaviors. For example, if a child bites his hand frequently, give him a toy that requires both hands to be used. This will occupy him in the task and stop the biting for a period of time. After a short while, reinforce this behavior. Similarly, children may show maladaptive behaviors because they are not able to communicate. A child may throw a tantrum in the middle of an activity, because he does not know how to tell you that he wants to stop doing it. Thus, teaching him a way to indicate that he wants to stop, will avoid such a tantrum in the future.

Adapting the Environment:

A lot of children with autism show maladaptive behaviors because of sensory issues. Too much light, a cold floor, or the screeching sound of the chalk in the next room, can all cause huge tantrums. Thus, as much as possible, we need to be sensitive to these issues and adapt the environment to provide a quiet and calm place for the child to be in.

Schedule and Structure:

Children with autism love structure and routine. A change in the routine can also cause a lot of maladaptive behaviors. Thus, it is best to have a fixed schedule both at home and school and to follow it regularly. If you anticipate a change in the schedule, prepare the child for this change in advance.

Thus these are some of the strategies that can be integrated into the home or classroom for discipline a child with autism. For more information on teaching a child with autism, read about the benefits of applied behavioral analysis in teaching children with autism.


Glen O. Sallows, T. D. (2005). Intensive Behavioral Treatment for Children With Autism: Four-Year Outcome and Predictors. American Journal on Mental Retardation , 417- 438.

Volkmar, F. R. (2007). Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.