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Can I just start off with saying that I've always been slightly confused by people who make blanket statements about how they "just love children"? My problem with these exclamations is that they utterly fail to recognize the fact that "children" are individuals, not some monolithic group with predetermined characteristics — and the very statement strips children of their personalities and thereby disrespects them. Try saying "I just love people!" and you'll see how ridiculous it really sounds. 

Along the same lines, "autistic children" are no more a united front than "neurotypical children", "Asian men", or "grandmothers". There isn't a single "instruction manual" that can teach a person how to "discipline autistic children" that will actually work every single time. 

The ideal way to discipline, or guide, any person — whether a student, a subordinate at work, or your own child — is one that respects their personhood and achieves the goal at hand. 

So with that in mind, here are some things that may help you in deciding how to discipline an autistic child. 

Don't Punish An Autistic Child For Being Autistic

Things like stimming and experiencing sensory overload in response to certain triggers are inherent parts of life on the spectrum, and autistic children should not be punished for them — it'd be akin to punishing a person for, say, breathing or feeling stressed when someone yells at them. 

Keep in mind, especially if an autistic child is in your life because you are their aunt, teacher, baseball coach, or anyone besides a parent, that you may not always know when behavior that annoys you is "just bad", or caused by some kind of trigger that you do not notice because you are not autistic. 

An ABA Discipline Approach That May Help You

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a discipline now commonly used to help autistic children master specific skills, including social skills. While ABA has its critics, I think the following six-step process towards discipline is quite useful (and not only when it comes to children with autism, either):

  1. Recognize that the child in question is attempting to communicate something with their behavior (or, an added thought of me, at least that their behavior communicates something about their current state of mind). 
  2. Reframe. Just like everyone else, you react to other people from within your own frame of reference. That behavior or action that you deem annoying or wrong and may even interpret as being deliberately so may be meant in a completely different way, or even have nothing to do with you at all. Similarly, your reaction to the action or behavior may be disproportionate. Start with empathy, and go from there. 
  3. Research in what situations a particular behavior arises, and see if you can find a pattern. 
  4. "Reinforce and punish", perhaps more nicely termed "reinforce and deter". Reinforcing means encouraging socially acceptable behaviors or behaviors you would like to see with positive consequences. Deterring or punishing means putting consequences for behavior you would not like to see in place. These may be so-called natural consequences, such as removing access to an item the child threw at someone. 
  5. Repeat. This one's about consistency. While that's a biggie for all kids, that especially applies to children with autism. Once you've decided on a course of action, always act the same in similar situations. 
  6. Request. This last one is about altering the circumstances in which a behavior or action tends to occur, and you may request that the child shares their observations surrounding this, or that outside people triggering behaviors and actions alter their own conduct. If loud music causes a meltdown, for instance, see if the loud music can be removed from the environment. 

If that's not clear enough, I'd add that behavior is caused by stimuli, whether internal or external. Your goal is encouraging behavior deemed good, and discouraging behavior deemed bad — not to make the child feel bad in the process, though that may inadvertently happen. Talking about the issue may help, as may changing the environment or the people in it and how they are in it. Removing privileges may help. Time outs may or may not help. The most effective discipline is, however, the kind in which the child agrees with you about what needs to be done — and that brings us back to the root of the word, which is "to teach", and not "to punish". 

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