Welcome to the Louden on Autism Q & A: Volume 2. Over the course of the next few months, I’m going to be using questions submitted by my website visitors, readers, autism advocates, parents and others to shed light on some of the most important questions about autism. I receive questions every day, and I want to make sure that the answers to these important questions are being shared with all of you.
Please know that these are my opinions and my answers come from my research and my own personal experiences. Of course, each situation is different. All of us as people are different. And no two people with or without autism should be treated the same exact way.
This week, I received a question about struggles with school and an issue with discipline.
My son is 13 and very high functioning. We have struggled with school mostly, but have not had many problems at home. My question really involves discipline. When he is argumentative, he gets extremely disrespectful with school staff. He thinks the teachers are attacking him. So when he tells me what he thinks they meant or even what he thinks they said, how do I give consequences for his reactions? He truly believes he was defending himself and I feel bad punishing him. Any suggestions?
This is a difficult question to answer from the outside. Often a lot of negative feedback, such as removing privileges, can be less helpful in changing a behavior that is seen as “self defense.”
It simply feels like it’s unavoidable – you’re either punished by your parents, or you suffer in the other situation. Neither situation keeps the person from suffering. In fact, this can sometimes lead to someone being more defensive — it’s hard to trust and open up to someone who you truly believe is “not on your side.” And it can also be hard to view someone as on your side when you see them as punishing you for trying to keep yourself safe — either physically or mentally.
Instead of changing the behavior by punishment, my recommendation would be to try to understand more deeply where the disconnect is. Does he not do the work, or is it just a matter of “respect?” If it’s what the school staff considers respect, then you need to think about whether or not they are adequately adjusting their expectations for someone on the spectrum who may struggle with typical social expectations.
When you live with autism, the world can seem like a very dangerous place. You often feel like everyone is “ganging up” on you because they have expectations that you can’t understand. And much like in your case, people punish your son when he fails to meet those expectations.
If someone says, “I explained it” and you say, “but I didn’t understand” then you’re punished for not understanding, even though you have a disability. Might they be in the wrong for failure to explain more clearly? This is rarely the case.
Because of this, trust can be very difficult to come by, and easy to break. My recommendation, then, is to look for ways to talk with the educational staff about fostering and increasing trust, and try to minimize punishments unless it’s clear there’s a real, conscious choice to do wrong. Poor behavior with intent is very different from a failure to understand.
Thanks for reading. Check back next week for another Q&A.