It is estimated that at least 1 out of every 250 people has Asperger’s Syndrome (AANE, 2016). Asperger’s Syndrome is a type of autism that is also known as high-functioning autism, or HFA [cite source]. It is present from birth, but most diagnoses occur between the ages of five and nine, although it can be diagnosed as early as age 3 (Nationwide Children’s, 2019). Boys have a three to four times greater chance of being diagnosed with autism as girls do (Nationwide Children’s, 2019), although some experts suspect that females with AS often go undiagnosed (AANE, 2016). According to GARD (2016), children with AS often develop obsessive interests in specific topics. Their motor skills may be delayed, making them seem clumsy and uncoordinated. Although they have good language skills and are of average to above average intelligence, they may have unusual speech patterns and have a difficult time understanding humor, irony, sarcasm, and social cues that make up normal conversation. They may engage in a repetitive routine, have a difficult time interacting with other children their age, and engage in inappropriate emotional or social behavior. It is important that parents keep in mind a number of considerations when disciplining their children with AS (Stillman, 2004), such as: what behaviors the child cannot control, the child’s lack of theory of mind, his need for structure and routine, and how to communicate effectively with him.
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There are many behaviors that are related to Asperger’s syndrome, which you should not punish your child for (Hutten, 2018). For example, according to Petro (2014), he will probably have a hard time making eye contact with others. Parents should realize that this is not a sign of disrespect—making eye contact causes Aspies to feel anxious and uncomfortable. One option is to teach your child to look at the bridge of the nose instead of the eyes (Petro, 2014).
Another behavior that children with Asperger’s experience is called a meltdown. A meltdown may outwardly appear to be similar to a temper tantrum, but it is very different (Hutten, 2011). When experiencing a meltdown, the child completely loses control of their actions and is unable to stop the meltdown. A meltdown occurs as a result of a sensory overload on the child, and often occur following a change the child’s normal routine [cite source] There is a short period before the meltdown that Hutten (2011) calls a “silent seizure.” In this period the child may be completely spaced-out and not interacting with their environment (Hutten, 2011). The parent can also watch for signs such as clearing the throat, lowering the voice, tensing muscles, tapping feet, grimacing, or acting generally discontented (Hutten, 2010). When parents notice these signs, they should act immediately to intervene (Hutten, 2011). There are several different interventions they can choose from, depending on the situation. If the child is upset by a change in his routine, it may help to make a visual chart or event schedule that shows him exactly what events are going to occur. This can give him the security and predictability that they need, and prevent a meltdown (Hutten, 2010). If the child is in a familiar environment such as home or school when the meltdown is about to occur, it may help for him to have a “home base” that he can go to for calming down, a place that is quiet and calm with few sensory distractions (Hutten, 2010). It may also help if you calmly stand near the child or take a walk with him, letting him express his feelings while you stay calm and react as little as possible (Hutten, 2010). It is important that you try to intervene before the meltdown comes on completely, because a meltdown is almost impossible to stop once it comes on [cite source].
Other AS behaviors that you shouldn’t punish your child for include: obsession over a certain topic, repeating specific words, phrases, or questions, having trouble with competition, wanting to be left alone, having difficulty waiting, having eating or sleeping problems, and having problems with corrections or making mistakes (Hutten, 2018). There are ways, such as therapy, that you can help your child deal with such behaviors [cite source], but you should not discipline for them.
AS children also have difficulty understanding the perspectives of other people and seeing things from others’ points of view (Sohn & Grayson, 2005; Petro, 2014; Hutten, 2019). This is also known as a lack of “theory of mind” (Hutten, 2019). They may not know that something they did was wrong and hurt someone else (Hutten, 2019). They may laugh or giggle at inappropriate times, appear insensitive (Petro, 2014), have a poor understanding of personal boundaries, and make blunt statements that come across as offensive or rude (Hutten, 2019). They are unable to objectively observe their own behavior or see when it is causing a problem (Sohn & Grayson, 2005). Also, according to Sohn and Grayson, it is difficult for AS kids to appraise situations and make a behavioral choice. This is where parents come in: it is their role to help their child understand how their behavior affects others and why it is wrong to do certain things (2005). It is very important when you discipline your child that you make sure they understand what he did wrong (Petro, 2014). What seems obvious to you may not be to your child. You can help your child grow in seeing things from others’ perspective by pointing out how their behavior hurt another person (Petro, 2014).
Emlet (2019), says that children with Asperger’s have the same sinful motivations that we all do at times, and this will probably play a role in causing some of their behavior problems. However, he says that parents should not hold them to the same standards of obedience that they would other children. Parents should expect their AS child to obey according to his level of maturity and capabilities. Gannon (2017), cautions parents not to mistake for sin what is actually your child’s inability to understand what you’re asking them to do. He says to make sure you explain your directives in a clear, straightforward manner, and break it down into simpler instructions if necessary. If there is a lack of obedience in your child, make sure that you know why. Before disciplining, you need to find out whether it is clear defiance or a lack of comprehension (Gannon, 2017). Ask the child questions such as “ ‘What are you thinking when you do that? ‘What would help you?’ and ‘What makes it hard to do this?’” (Gannon, 2017, “Love them wisely” para. 2).
It is very important for a child with Asperger’s Syndrome to have clear, consistent structure in their life. Sohn and Grayson (2005), say that if AS children do not have appropriate structure and routines, they will feel very anxious and not know how to behave. They will create their own rules and routines in order to gain a sense of security. These might be things like… Therefore, it is very important for parents to develop structures for their AS child such as a daily schedule, a list of household rules, a list of inappropriate behaviors and consequences, and a system of rewards for good behavior. It is also helpful to make lists of rules before entering a new situation, so that the child knows how to behave (Sohn & Grayson, 2005). For example, when going to a wedding, a parent might go over the following list of rules with their child:
1- Before the service begins, it is okay to talk to other people, especially people I know. 2-When everyone is sitting down, people will usually be very quiet or whisper. Everyone expects me to be very quiet or whisper too.
3-If I am not being quiet or whispering too much, Mom or Dad… will tell me about it or ask me to stop. They will do this because I am distracting other people who want to see and hear the service.
4- If I get bored during the service, I will think about something else, quietly draw or read, or play a silent game I brought with me.
5-When the service ends and people get up, it is okay to talk in my normal voice again. (Stillman, 2004, Ch.4, Setting rules, para. 10)
This format can be used for a variety of situations. Social stories are another teaching device that can help AS kids understand how to behave in certain situations (Hutten, 2009). For example, here is a social story about lining up:
At school, we sometimes line up. We line up to go to the gym, to go to the library, and to go out to recess. Sometimes my friends and I get excited when we line up, because we’re going someplace fun, like out to recess. It is okay to get excited, but it is important to try to walk to the line. Running can cause accidents, and my friends or I could get hurt. I will try to walk to the line (the behavioral goal for the child). (Hutten, 2009)
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Social stories provide information about social situations and help your child know how to handle them (Hutten, 2009). They can be used for a variety of topics and situations, such as manners, hygiene, emotions, sports, major events, and school (Hutten, 2009). Stillman (2004) says that parents should not assume that their child will generalize rules or information from one situation to another, even if they are very similar. He says that for a child with Asperger’s, every situation is just that: a new situation (Stillman, 2004).
According to Hutten (2019), children with AS learn best through visual instructions; it can be difficult for them to understand verbal communication and tone of voice. He says visual instructions such as schedules, chore lists, or steps of a process are more effective, and that pictures, photographs, and cartoons can be used to help with comprehension (Hutten, 2019). He also says it is important for parents to be consistent in their discipline. It is especially confusing for AS children if parents are not in agreement about the method or use or discipline (Hutten, 2019).
What consequences for bad behavior should parents use for AS children? Stillman (2004) recommends punishments such as temporarily withholding phone, computer, or TV usage, or withholding their allowance. Hutten (2019), says that time outs are not effective punishments for AS children because social isolation is usually desirable for AS kids and could be interpreted as a reward. Instead, he says, you could remove something fun from the child for a specific time interval (such as their building blocks or dollhouse) (Hutten, 2019). Also, experts agree that parents should not use any type of physical discipline on children with autism (Hutten, 2018). This may cause them to think that hitting others is okay or engage in self-injurious behavior such as hitting themselves (Hutten, 2018). Similarly, Stillman (2004) cautions parents to avoid engaging in angry outbursts and threats toward their AS child. He says children with AS are usually very emotionally sensitive and will take every word you say as true, even if you don’t mean what you are saying—it has the potential to have a long-lasting, damaging effect on your child (Stillman, 2004). He also says to beware that AS children may take even mild criticisms very personally and cry, pout, or sulk for hours as a result. He warns that if you are frequently impatient and have angry outbursts toward your child, they will “withdraw from you more and more until you are shut out completely” (Stillman, 2004, “Seeing your child’s point of view” para.4). He also says to make sure that when you discipline, you focus on the behavior, rather than the person (Stillman, 2004). Hutten (2018) says that you should try to catch your child behaving appropriately and reward him for it, even if it’s just with a few words of praise or encouragement. He says to be specific about the behavior they’re being rewarded for (e.g. “Thank you for making your bed” vs. just “Good job”) (Hutten, 2018).
It is important that parents take into consideration the areas that AS children struggle with and find effective ways to help them deal with these struggles. They should not be quick to label all inappropriate behaviors as sin but should first make sure that there is not issue of incomprehension or misunderstanding. They provide fair rules, boundaries, and consequences for the child in a way that the child understands.
- Asperger’s Syndrome. (2019, November 19). Retrieved from https://www.nicklauschildrens.org/conditions/asperger-s-syndrome
- Boyd, B. (2003). Parenting a child with Asperger syndrome: 200 tips and strategies. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Parenting_a_Child_with_Asperger_Syndrome/MgNiNvlWtoAC?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
- Emlet, M. R. (2019, May 28). Asperger syndrome: How can you help? Retrieved from https://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/life-issues/challenges/mental-and-emotional-issues/asperger-syndrome-how-can-you-help/
- Hutten, M. (2010, June). Asperger’s tantrum, rage, and meltdowns. Retrieved from https://www.myaspergerschild.com/2010/06/aspergers-tantrums-rage-and-meltdowns.html
- Hutten, M. (2018, May). Basic disciplinary strategies for children with Asperger’s and HFA. Retrieved from https://www.myaspergerschild.com/2018/05/disciplinary-strategies-for-children.html
- Hutten M. (2019, March). Tips for parents of kids on the autism spectrum who don't respond well to discipline. Retrieved from https://www.myaspergerschild.com/2019/03/tips-for-parents-of-kids-on-autism.html
- Petro, L. (2014, September 9). 5 Things you should never say to a child with Asperger’s (or any child). Retrieved from https://www.kidsinthehouse.com/blogs/lori-petro/5-things-you-should-never-say-to-a-child-with-aspergers-or-any-childSohn, A. and Grayson, C. (2005). Parenting your Asperger child: Individualized solutions for teaching your child practical skills. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Parenting_Your_Asperger_Child/A4KCfH1f7rAC?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
- Stillman, W. (2004). The everything parent’s guide to children with Asperger’s syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/Ro7rDQAAQBAJ?hl=en
- What is Asperger’s Syndrome? (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/conditions/aspergers-syndrome
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