Discipline and autism—it doesn’t always make sense.

By Jennifer Dyer

The other day in Rachel’s special needs gymnastics class, I had a great discussion with one of the moms about discipline, specifically regarding tantrums.

Common sense says to intervene in a tantrum, especially if the child needs to be moved. Screaming in the living room? Go to your room if you want to cry. Screaming at bedtime? Shut the door and give consequences if the behavior continues. Refusing to go to school? Perhaps a swat or some other consequence. Screaming in a grocery store? More of the above…

But what about when an autistic child is having the tantrum? The other mom and I agreed that sometimes intervening only exacerbates the situation. In both of our cases, touching or trying to move our autistic child during a tantrum is asking for a back injury and a longer tantrum.

It was interesting that the next day featured one of THOSE kinds of mornings. Rachel didn’t want to get out of bed. Each time I went to her room and talked to her she snarled and fussed at me like the grouchy lioness I’d just seen at the circus. I kept trying, but Rachel kept getting more irritated.  She finally dashed into my closet and set up camp in there. And she had no intentions of leaving. Ever.

Eldest and I tried and tried to get Rachel out of that closet, but she wasn’t budging. I called a neighbor to take eldest to school and then I thought about what to do next. I pray for wisdom all the time and at that moment I felt as though I should get my dishes done. I called Rachel’s teacher then tackled the kitchen sink. About half an hour later I heard Rachel cooing in her bed. I put on a smile and told her it was time for school. Would you believe she stood up, grabbed blankie and headed for the car? I stared after her. Was this the same child from earlier? It was as if she had switched personalities. And all of this happened AFTER I left her alone—i.e. without any nagging and intervention from moi.

We arrived at school an hour late, and Rachel walked in as if nothing had happened. Why? I have no idea.

I worry that I spoil her when I let her get those tantrums out of her system, but when I ignore her they end faster and she takes less time to recover. Plus, she is unable to communicate her needs. At times like this one I must take a step back and think about all the reasons Rachel may have issues. Maybe she was cold all night, but her sensory system had just now registered it. Maybe her throat hurt and she didn’t know how to handle it. Maybe those Ritz crackers she snuck the other day were just hitting her system and making her feel out of control. It could be anything and maybe in ten years she will be able to tell me why. But in the mean time I have learned that sometimes the best intervention is taking a step back and re-evaluating my next move.

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