The Importance of Rules & Boundaries for Kids With Autism

Children with autism often insist on routines to maintain control over their environment 1. Clearly explaining the rules in a positive way helps the child to understand and abide by the rules, according to the Texas Guide for Effective Teaching. Children with autism who learn a rule for a given situation rarely deviate from it 1. You should teach rules directly and give the reasons for them, explained in an age-appropriate way.

Creating Rules

Specific steps exist to develop rules for children with autism, and the Texas Guide for Effective Teaching has determined several rules that have been demonstrated to help children with autism 1. First, determine the most important rules, based on your child’s routine. Develop the rule for a given situation. Explain the rule, using positive terms. For example, the rule should be, “Walk in the hallway,” rather than, “Don’t run in the hallway.” Then teach the rule directly, by telling your child what the rule is and why you created the rule. Practice the rule until your child is able to follow it on his own. Eventually, you should be able to apply the rule to new situations.

Using Rules in New Situations

Children with autism find it difficult to generalize what they learn and to apply it to new situations, according to the article, "Helping Children with Autism," by authors Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Ted Hutman, Ph.D., on 1. Having rules helps, and you can help your child learn to apply those rules by explaining when he can use an existing rule in a new situation. If you have a rule about walking instead of running in the hallway at school, tell your child that the same rule is in effect in the library. Before you get to the library, you can say, “You know that we walk in the hallway at school. Well, we use the same rule in the library. We walk in the library, just like we do in the hallway at school.”

Use Consistent Boundaries

Explain boundaries to your child, and reward your child when he acts appropriately. When your child maintains a new boundary or follows a new rule, use a lot of positive reinforcement. Use specific praise when your child is adhering to the boundaries you set, according to Be sure that other people who work with your child, like teachers and therapists, understand and enforce the same boundaries that you do. Visual cues to enforce boundaries helps, as well. A red circle with a line through it can mean, ‘Don’t touch,’ for example.

Taking Advantage of Rules and Boundaries

An autistic child’s reliance on rules and boundaries can often work in his favor. Since a child with autism who learns the rule about walking in the hallways will always walk and never run, the teacher may want to assign that child to lead the class down the hallway when the class needs to move from one room to another.