Discipline And The Autistic Child... Potentially Devastating To Both Parent And Child!

When A Lack Of Understanding Leads To A Painful And Potentially Harmful Situation!!!

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Life with an autistic child was a difficult one - especially emotionally  - for both the autistic child and the parent… and I now truly understood just how difficult that life could be for those parents who had two or more autistic children.  As difficult as I found life, myself, my heart truly went out to all parents of the autistic and especially to those who had several autistic children.  

Recently, however, the emotional distress I, personally, felt in daily life with autism was magnified, beyond what words could even begin to express - by my realization of what I had been – unknowingly - doing emotionally to my autistic son when it came to discipline!

Discipline was a sensitive issue for all parents.    So often, I had heard parents complain that their autistic child, had been labeled by onlookers as simply "undisciplined" and that "a good spanking would do him a world of good".   Well... only the parent of an autistic child could truly understand just how difficult it could be to discipline a child - when there seemed to be no answer as to “why” the autistic child did what he did.  Too many times, I believed we made the mistake of disciplining our children as one would discipline a "normal child"... and herein was, what I believed, was yet another huge issue for both the parent and the child.

The best way for me to explain this, again, was via an example.    As I worked on my computer one day, I had a cup of coffee next to me.   The cup only had about 1/3 of the coffee left in it.   There were papers all about me, with my notes scratched on them.   Zachary came into the office and saw the cup.  He immediately proceeded to turn it over and I proceeded to pull his pants down and give him a small spanking in an attempt to "teach him" that this was "unacceptable behavior".    Well, two hours later, I realized he had done this because he literally could not help himself.    Again - as with so much in his life - partiality had played a role... at the time, however, I had not recognized that!  

The cup was only 1/3 full... and given that I now knew for a fact that Zachary could not properly process partiality, it now ( 2 hours later)  made perfect sense to me as to why he had flipped that cup and emptied it in such a quick motion.   Had that cup been full, he would have left it alone - I had seen him do that on many occasions in the past - but, now, in a very poignant way, I truly understood what I had done to my child!  I had spanked him for doing something over which he had absolutely no control!   This had happened very, very shortly after I had come to the conclusion that "partiality" was an issue for him... but, reacting to the situation, I had not made the appropriate "connection" at the time of the incident.   Needless to say, I felt horrible!

I had showed Zachary the concept of fractions but had not yet applied it to so many things in his life, specifically, for example, to the fact that a cup could be 1/3 full, etc.  I had actually planned on working on that "example" in the next day or so but had not yet done so.  I had shown him the concept of “fractions” at it related to a door being opened halfway.  We had a rather squeaky front door, and I decided to use that as my example of “fractions” in applying the concept to “real life”.    Had I used a cup instead, I was certain Zachary would not have even touched the cup that was 1/3 filled because I would have provided the necessary label he needed to cope with the situation... it could have been that simple!

Interestingly, I had noticed that, in Zachary, if a partially filled bottle had a cap on it, such as a bottle of mouthwash, etc., somehow, that was better tolerated.   It could simply have been that Zachary had tried to open partially filled bottles in the past with no success and now left them alone... but, I did want to mention this also.   I was not sure if "a cap" made the bottle and its content more easily perceived as a whole - I suspected it did, but, again, it may simply have been that I had not noticed Zachary trying to open these in the past.  Yet, Zachary had, at a very young age, figured out how to open many child proof caps.   Again, I cautioned parents to be careful in making assumptions here - this was true for all children.   There were many dangerous liquids in bottles, and parents should never assume that any child would leave dangerous liquids alone! 

There was an inherent danger in assuming that the fact that something in “black and white” was inherently true!   I advised all parents to always err on the side of caution, and to always question everything – even the materials I provided herein because, although I saw things a certain way, perhaps, I had missed something else altogether.    I truly wanted to caution everyone to always seek the answers and to continue to search for them, until everything made sense… not only those “parts” we were personally comfortable with.  :o)  Given the safety issues as they related to “incomplete or inaccurate reference livingã” and the generalizations these children made from one thing to the other (i.e., all pills or “candy looking things” tasted good and were fun to eat… all liquids were fun… like bubble liquid, etc.), this was especially true when it came to matters such as dangerous substances, pills, etc.   Never assume your child “knew” something and that “this knowledge” could “cross over” accurately from one situation to the other… that could  be a very deadly and heart-wrenching assumption to make!

There were many situations that  parents and others in society, saw as issues with "disciple" in the autistic child, but that, in actuality, were nothing more than issues with partiality! 

For example, Zachary had long had issues with running back and forth, down a hallway... never stopping in "the middle" of the hallway.   Even if someone was "in the way", he practically "mowed them down" to get past them and to the other end.   Again, it was an "all or nothing" motion... and there were no "in betweens".   To someone observing this situation, Zachary would, surely, be seen as a "very rude, undisciplined and unmannered child".   That, however, could not be further from the truth!  Zachary was pretty good in  saying, "please and thank you” in everything, yet, with issues that dealt with "partiality", he literally could not help himself... his brain simply was not allowing for that "in between" situation - at least not until that "in between" situation was taught!

There was another story I needed to share that also related to the issue of discipline in the autistic child.   I had once been in a grocery store with Zachary.   This particular store had a small toy aisle as so many of them do.   In that aisle was a small package of toy soldiers.   Zachary had wanted me to purchase that item, but, at the time, I had told him, no.  Six months later, we returned to that same store.   As soon as we had gone down the first aisle, Zachary said: "soldiers".   At first, I did not understand what he was talking about... but, his sister did... she had a knack for always understanding exactly what he wanted.   She reminded me of the packet of toy soldiers and said:  "he wants the soldiers he saw last time".    I could not believe it... how was it that he had such a fantastic memory for such things?

If you put the stories of the "spilled coffee" and the "toy soldiers" together, you get another very real story - the story of a misunderstood child who was disciplined for something beyond his control and the story of a child who had a fantastic memory and would remember the fact, that, for some reason he could not understand, mom punished him for doing something he could not help doing – for doing something he simply did not understand in terms of “what was wrong”!  You ha the story of a child who was spanked for a reason he could not control nor understand and you had a child with a fantastic memory... the two, together, again, made for a dangerous combination in the autistic child.  

I truly wondered how much emotional damage, we, as parents, teachers, and others all about these children were inflicting upon them simply because we did not understand them.  Until the "offending situation", as the 1/3 cup of coffee, and the concept of what "1/3 is" was explained to Zachary and he understood that concept, he could do nothing but turn that cup over... his inability to process partiality properly would ensure that - until he had been taught otherwise!  Add to this - the use of sedation and/or medications, and "therapy" methods based on punishment or negative reward systems -  in an attempt to control a child who simply was not understood, and you get a very dangerous and harmful combination indeed!

When I, personally, came to this realization as to how Zachary was affected by "partiality", I truly came to understand exactly what all that now meant for my child - every single aspect of his life had been impacted - his behavioral, social, emotional, sensory aspects - everything - and that impacted absolutely everything in how I, as a parent needed to respond to him!   It was now critical to make him understand everything with labels,  to explain every aspect of every situation - a huge task indeed, but a very necessary one!

Now that I realized this, I, personally, felt a great deal of emotional distress - knowing I had punished my child in the past when he literally had no control over what he was doing,  and knowing that he had a fantastic memory simply made matters worse!  

I could not even begin to describe the pain I felt at the moment of that realization and the pain I still feel to this day for having punished Zachary when he simply did not realize what he was doing, and truly could not control himself!  :o(  

This was an issue that would always weigh very, very heavily upon my heart.   I could only hope that since I now understood his problem, that I could help erase some of the horrible memories he surely must have had of a mom getting upset for so many years and his not understanding why!  :o(

Finally, let me say, that I found autistic children, in most cases to be very, very intelligent children.   They understood so much more than we could ever imagine.   Not being able to communicate back to someone did not mean that something had not been understood.   While on the phone, I often used to say to people who wanted me to visit:  "Well, I really can’t... with Zachary... it's just too hard!"   I no longer said that because I now realized he truly understood this comment... and I knew he understood so, so much more!   

For example, when I had to go to Canada to pick up his sister who had been at a horse camp for a week, I told Zachary as I put him down the night before I left that "mommy was going to get Anika"... and I told him I would be gone for 2 or 3 days.   When I said that, he answered:  "2 days".   He understood completely!

Thus, to parents, teachers - indeed everyone - I would just caution you to be careful of what you say and do when it came to such issues.  Those little ears did understand.  Be very careful when a stressful situation occurred and you wanted to discipline your child to first look at the source of your child's behavior.    I urged you to evaluate the situation, and make absolutely sure that the reason for which you thought discipline was necessary had absolutely nothing to do with the autistic child's inability to process partialities or his inability to integrate his world, because, if it did, then punishing or "disciplining" that child for his actions would do nothing to help him understand the situation and why "it was wrong" to do what he did and it would do nothing to prevent the situation from happening again in the future since the underlying issue had not been addressed with the giving of a spanking!

Undoubtedly, it will take all parents a while to come to truly understand and cope, themselves, with the huge role partiality played in the life of the autistic child, but soon, like me, other parents would be able to spot these issues in an instant.   And when that happened and the "offense" was as a result of this inability to process partiality, look not at the moment as one for discipline, but rather, seek the lesson you needed to teach your child as it related to partiality and the need to integrate information in order for the “parts” to make sense!   

In truth, I would say that when the urge to discipline occurred, I would look immediately at the situation, not the child.   What was wrong with the situation that caused him to do what he did?   These "situations", when they result from an inability to process partiality needed to be viewed as excellent opportunities to find out exactly what your child needed to understand... what issue, what concept, etc.   Only then, would your child truly strive, as with each explanation and each label, he was more and more able to cope with daily life and decode his world! :o)

Other information I have written on discipline and the child with autism can be found in "Book 4", under "Difficulties in Discipline".

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