When I was in college there was this man who was a traveling minister of some sort and he would come to the campus of The University of Texas for a week and would have a TV crew and would set up shop on the lawn or mall of the West Campus and would field questions about religion, christianity, faith, mystery, you name it…it always drew a great crowd and there were some very good debates during the week. He was a brilliant man and was very good at answering questions to the pseudo-intellectuals on the 40 Acres who would throw out all these crazy questions about Christ and really try to trip this speaker up. When there would be questions about the mystery of Christ or questions that were just so complex and outlandish he had the greatest answer. He would say, “thank you for you question. I can answer it in 4 simple words….I….Do…Not…Know.” And then he would simply state how there are questions and issues and things in the christian faith and in life that simply just can’t be answered or understood.
Which brings me to my current situation. “How does a father of a 5-year-old son with autism discipline him in a way that isn’t harmful, where he understands why he is being reprimanded, and that works?”
I keep going back to the man’s answer….”I….Do….Not…Know”–but as this is my blog, I’ll share what I can.
NEWSFLASH: Autistic children don’t handle situations and react as typical children do! I must be a stinking genius! But it’s true and that’s something you have to keep reminding yourself over and over and over. As a young child myself, when I would do something wrong or purposefully disobey my parents and elders, I would be punished in various ways…spanking, timeout, take away privileges, loose toys, animals, whatever…and I would understand (maybe didn’t agree) why that was happening. It was my choice to do something out of accord with the rules and regulations of my parents and I would suffer the consequences.
My son is smart. He knows when he’s disobedient and when he’s out of accord with what we deem right and wrong…he’s autistic but he’s sharp and he knows it–we all know it–it just manifests itself in non-traditional ways. So I am not going to give him a “free pass” when he throws a fit, when he hits a classmate or runs away from his parents when he is not supposed to…he’s autistic, but he’s smart and oh wouldn’t i love to see what goes on in his mind!
So how do I teach him right and wrong and that there are consequences to our actions and choices when he doesn’t think like a typical child would? Once again, “I…Do…Not…Know…” but I’ll take a stab.
Consistency is certainly key–and that’s hard, oh so hard. When he’s doing something and I want to swat his hand our his butt I can’t do it because he doesn’t respond to that…I need to be consistent and use the methods that he relates to and that tell him that he’s doing wrong and we know he’s doing wrong.
With my son there isn’t an exact answer…sometimes we give him timeout, sometimes we take away his favorite toys, sometimes we pop him on the hand and other times we take away privileges like playing outside or treats or things like that. Does it work 100% of the time? HECK NO! Sometimes nothing works and you just have to hang on tight and ride out the situation–and that’s okay.
But be consistent and be swift. I remember one time I did something wrong and I got the, “when we get home you’re going to get a spanking” and that scared the sh*t out of me and so I behaved the rest of the time. But you can’t do that with an autistic child…you have to immediately address the situation because if you wait, your child won’t understand why they’re being punished and probably won’t remember acting out of accord a while back and so they won’t understand and you’ve lost a teaching opportunity.
Consistent, swift and loving. Of course a parent should be loving–I hope this goes without saying–but realize that you can’t “fix” your child of autism, you can’t take your anger and frustration out on your child when they’re acting up in the store or at home–putting your child in timeout in anger isn’t going to cure your child of their situation and it’s not going to make you feel better.
So what did you learn here? Maybe that the answer is “I…Do…Not…Know.” but hopefully some of the tips and reminders will help you–I can honestly say that I am a total failure at this many times a week, but if I can keep reminding myself to be consistent, swift and loving then hopefully my son will begin to understand why he is being disciplined and what the consequences to his actions will be the next time he acts up again.
But always be prepared to hang on for a bumpy ride…stay strong fathers…you’re needed more than you’ll ever know!