How to Determine Appropriate Consequences for Children With Autism

Although parents normally use consequences in response to a child’s inappropriate behavior, prevention is key when dealing with the challenging behaviors of children with autism. The focus of consequences is on changing rather than managing a child’s behavior. Additionally, rewards and consequences that work with neurotypical children often aren’t effective with children on the autism spectrum, according to information distributed by the Center on Disabilities and Human Development, Idaho Training Cooperative. In fact, disciplinary strategies that generally motivate most children to behave appropriately can make the behavior of children with autism worse. (See Reference 1, pg. 30)

Assess the situation to determine the circumstances that bring on a certain inappropriate behavior. Try to understand why your child is behaving that way, recommends the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. (See Reference 2) For example, some children with autism bite themselves or others when they are stressed or need sensory stimulation 2. Either engaging in floor time play with your child or massaging his jaw can have a calming effect. Floor play offers him social interaction at his level while massage gives him the deep touch pressure he needs.

Consider the individual situation before deciding if your child’s behavior calls for a consequence. Since the consequence that follows a behavior can affect the likelihood of a child repeating the behavior, choose consequences that teach appropriate behaviors. A consequence should focus on helping to improve a child’s coping and social skills.

Avoid using consequences that your child may interpret as punishment. Negative consequences often increase the anxiety of a child with autism spectrum disorder, especially when the behavior seems normal to her. For example, a child with autism may engage in self-stimulatory behaviors such as rocking or hand flapping 2. Although your goal may be to change or reduce your child's unusual stimming behavior, you don't want to make her feel embarrassed by it.

Instruct your child on what to do. Merely telling him not to do something isn't enough. Children with autism often don’t know how to behave in a particular situation 2. Be clear about the rules that apply in each case. Keep rules simple so your child will understand and not be confused.

Choose a consequence that teaches your child an alternative behavior to replace the inappropriate behavior. For instance, if sensory overload or changes in routine trigger aggressive behavior, send your child to a quiet area where she can be alone for a few minutes until she calms down. The goal is to teach her to calm herself before allowing her to return to her normal activities. Set up a quiet place where she will feel safe and secure. If you impose a consequence that your child sees as punishing, it may cause her to avoid similar situations in the future. This is contrary to the goal of teaching her how to deal with frustrating and stressful events in an appropriate way.

Avoid reinforcing inappropriate behavior. Giving the behavior your attention, even negative attention, may be what your child wants. Autism Speaks points out that not reacting to inappropriate behavior is a consequence that can decrease the frequency of that behavior 2. (See Reference 3)

Use natural reinforcers that somehow are related to the desirable behavior you want your child to learn. Although you may have to use a trial-and-error approach for finding positive reinforcers that motivate your child, provide immediate reinforcement whenever he demonstrates the proper behavior. Watch for appropriate behavior so that you can reinforce it often.

Practice consistency, using the same type of consequence for the same behavior each time. If a consequence isn't effective, stop using it. If you use positive reinforcement as a consequence, vary the reinforcers to keep your child motivated. For instance, if you reward your child with a privilege, don’t use the same privilege each time. A privilege might be an activity like allowing your child to play outside for 15 additional minutes before coming in to do her homework, or allowing her to take a walk with you after dinner.