Disciplining children with ASD

Discipline ... there is help available for parents.
Discipline ... there is help available for parents. 

Hi Kimberley,

Our 4 year old son is on the Autism Spectrum. He was recently diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD - NOS) and this is impacting on our ability to manage his behaviour with confidence. My son is rigid in his thinking and he refuses to move on when he is engaged in an activity, such as playing trains, completing a puzzle or watching TV. My partner and I battle with him every night to get him through the routine of dinner, bath and bed. Mornings are just as dismal as he refuses to get dressed, eat breakfast or sit in his car seat. Our family is chronically stressed and I’m concerned about the impact this conflict is having on our son, his two elder siblings and our marriage.

I wonder if you can tell us the difference between ‘blatant defiance’ and ‘rigid thinking’. Any strategies to manage ‘melt downs’ would also be invaluable.


Dear H.M.,

Thank you for sharing your challenging new scenario. It seems your son’s diagnosis has affected your parenting confidence. Would you be more likely to set boundaries and follow through with consequences, if you believed your son was in control of his behaviour and not on the spectrum? Many parents experience disbelief, anger and typically a sense of grief and loss following an ASD diagnosis. This process often impacts on your desire to set limits with the child in question and consistency can also become an issue between parents who had previously been rock solid.

The good news is, children on the spectrum can learn to self-regulate their emotional extremes. You can also learn how to schedule your day to reduce the likelihood of a ‘melt down’. Use screen time only as a reward to motivate behaviour. Use photos of your son in action, when he is eating diner, having a bath, lying in bed, getting dressed and sitting in his car seat. A visual sequence of events should be on display and you can give your son a ticket or ‘TV token’ to collect in a jar when he completes a task. Egg timers or other visual clocks are also helpful to keep young children on task. These ideas will support your son, but remember to also offer support to your other children with regular one-to-one time. Family meetings are also great to revive your family dynamic and instill a sense of hope. Please also consider a family session with an ASD expert - Support and guidance is key with ASD.

The Quirky Kid Clinic offers telephone consultations for parents around Australia and internationally.  For further information phone 02 9362 9297 or email: info@quirkykid.com.au

Warm regards,

Kimberley O’Brien
Educational & Developmental Psychologist

Kimberley O'Brien is one of Australia's most trusted and recognized Child Psychologists with a knack for solving issues from the child's perspective. She is currently Principal Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic in NSW.