What Not To Do With an Autistic Child

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

December 29, 2022

Parents and caregivers generally seek advice regarding what not to do with a child who has autism spectrum disorder. Having a child with autism becomes an ongoing learning process for the entire family and support from professionals can make this process easier. As a parent or caregiver, discovering the best ways to help your child navigate the world around them is one of the keys to your child’s success.

9 Things To Avoid

Although knowing how to reinforce adaptive behavior is imperative for a child with autism, it is also important to understand what types of expectations, corrective techniques, or disciplinary consequences to avoid.

Here are some examples of what not to do with an autistic child:

  1. Do not punish a child for characteristic autistic behaviors – Maladaptive actions such as rocking, melting down, screaming, or crying excessively are behaviors that children with autism cannot control. Instead of punishment, alternative behavior should be modeled.
  1. Do not offer confusing explanations – When explaining the reason for correction or a consequence, use clear, concise language (e.g., verbal, visual) that a child with autism can easily understand.
  1. Do not use disciplinary consequences that are not developmentally or age appropriate – Consequences should be in the form of positive reinforcement that helps children understand that their needs will be met when they behave and communicate appropriately.
  1.  Do not set too many expectations – Setting a few clear goals and expectations is beneficial for children with autism because it is easier for them to remember small amounts of information. It is also important to learn what a child is trying to communicate to enable them to express their need in a positive manner next time.
  1. Do not only offer verbal instruction – Some children with autism are non-verbal or minimally verbal. They may also be visual or tactile learners, which means providing words as well as pictures that can be seen or items that can be touched is often helpful.
  1. Do not allow them to do less because of their diagnosis – Children who have autism typically learn through different pathways, but are often capable of excelling with proper guidance. Although they may need more direction to complete a task, they shouldn’t be allowed to avoid certain challenges. Optimal support can help a child reach his or her full potential.
  1. Do not make choices for a child with autism – Parenting involves guidance and supervision, but try to avoid making all of your child’s decisions. Even the youngest children can choose what type of activity or meal they prefer when they are given appropriate expectations. 
  1. Do not yell – Yelling can be overwhelming for any child, but for one who has autism, it can augment problematic behavior. In addition, raising your voice in anger may trigger sensory problems or lead to a meltdown. Remember to schedule breaks or fun activities that offer opportunities for praise.
  1. Do not discourage yourself when you make a mistake – Parents of children with autism will often struggle and make mistakes (e.g., yelling or walking away). Helping your child is a learning process and it is important to recognize a mistake and move on. Continuing to feel discouraged may prevent you from giving your child the nurturing he or she needs.  

Children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may not understand traditional forms of discipline or consequences for challenging behavior. This may frustrate parents or caregivers, but refraining from verbal or physical punishment that is intimidating or traumatizing is vital, as harsh reprimands may worsen maladaptive behavior.

Why Do Children with Autism Display Challenging Behaviors?

Fostering cognitive development and adaptive social skills involves reinforcing your child’s unique learning ability. Helping a child with autism also involves recognizing the reasons they typically engage in challenging behaviors. These reasons may include:

  • Attention – to get attention from others
  • Escape – to avoid doing an undesirable activity or action
  • Access – to retrieve an object the child wants
  • Self-stimulation – to satisfy a sensory-seeking sensation

When these types of cues are observed, there are a number of common strategies parents can employ to help children with autism thrive.

The following is a brief list of what to do with an autistic child: 

  • Modeling alternative behaviors to decrease the occurrence of maladaptive behavior – For example, if a child constantly climbs on counters to retrieve items, an alternative behavior may involve teaching the child how to use his or her mode of communication (e.g., signing, pointing to a picture) to request the item.
  • Offer assistance when cues for specific needs (e.g., thirst, hunger, problem-solving) are observed – For instance, if a child keeps going toward the pantry, guide the child through the physical movements of communicating his or her need. This may include showing them pictures of a cup or food item, modeling helpful words to use, or showing the proper signing technique.
  • Gradually offer less assistance until the child displays the alternative behavior on his or her own – If a child starts rocking or walking in circles, for example, but abruptly stops and seeks the pictures that are used for communication, give the child the opportunity to communicate the need since the challenging behavior (e.g., rocking) stopped.
  • Apply the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) which are derived from motivating factors for challenging behavior (e.g., attention, access, escape, self-stimulation) – If a child with autism keeps placing items in his or her mouth, offer the child a safe snack as this may be a sensory-seeking behavior that is motivated by self-stimulation.

Professionals who have acquired specialized training to work with autistic children may also be able to provide useful strategies that can help target challenging behaviors. If you have difficulties implementing certain techniques or addressing particularly challenging behaviors, reach out to a trained specialist.

Conclusions

Helping an autistic child learn how to behave and communicate more efficiently isn’t a process that happens quickly. In addition, there are no standard guidelines to follow, but over time specific triggers can be avoided before a challenging behavior begins or quickly addressed with practice. In addition, working with a therapist who can offer ABA in a child’s home often incorporates parent education to help parents improve social interactions with their children.

Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

Our Locations

Get started with care from Songbird — covered by insurance