Autism and Punishments
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
This is an old-school vs new-world debate. The religious “spare the rod, spoil the child” is being replaced with new parenting that encourages natural consequences and a child focus that at times makes no sense at all. However, many of our children these days are unique and have needs that are more apparent than those of our own generation. This blog is for those who want to learn how to parent better and are willing to listen to the voice of a unique child raised in the old-school ways. I will start by attempting to explain what happened to me then I will give some observations as a parent/teacher of autistics and finish up with what I do differently for those I work with.
Punishment: rough treatment or penalty for an offense.
Spanking: slapping the buttocks as a punishment for children.
Physical Abuse: intentional act causing injury or trauma through bodily contact, most commonly through child punishment and corporal punishments.
>>Creates: low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, PTSD, personality disorders, irrational fears, and psychosis
Yelling: loud cry, scream, or shout
Mental Abuse: victim’s self worth is diminished by the use of verbal abuse in the form of yelling, sarcasm, and derisive comments (also known as: Psychological violence, emotional abuse)
>>Creates: anxiety, depression, PTSD, inability to form healthy relationships, and bullying
As I was growing up, I knew I was different but I had no clue why. Therefore, I was raised to believe that I was a mistake (among other things), one who needed to be punished to “purify my soul” and save me from becoming a damnable being. This was not good for my self-esteem--I was depressed and hated every little part of my being. I was cutting myself in hidden places for as long as I could remember. My first suicide attempt was with my grandfather’s razor the summer before kindergarten. I lived in fear that any word I spoke or action I took would bring punishments upon me.
The thing about punishment is this: if there are no clear cut rules, then how does one know if they have transgressed?
I would be spanked for leaving a dish unwashed in the sink. I would be spanked for washing a dish but not drying it. I would be spanked for washing and drying the dish but not putting it exactly where it belonged. I would be spanked, if after drying my hands the towel was not folded perfectly and hung in the exact middle of the bar. These are simple examples to show the contradictory life I lived in (and that many children live in today).
When I say spanked...I mean with whatever was available: a shoe, a belt, the plastic handle to the Tupperware cake holder, a piece of plastic in the yard. Acceptable spanking areas included my back, butt, and upper legs--as long as they would be covered by my clothes (which my mother made and were long-sleeved and floor length).
For many, punishments are rule-setting events.
For instance, if the stove burner is hot and I touch it I receive the penalty of being burned. I learn and set into my brain a rule that says I must now check to see if the burner is hot before touching it--However, should I be autistic then that rule becomes that I must never touch a burner again in my life. Young autistics, such as myself, tend to live in absolutes, black and white. Therefore, every punishment makes an absolute rule. There is no consideration of what happened, how, or why, just that it did and thus must not happen again.
So...how about those punishments that are contradictory?
I must not leave a dirty dish in the sink--okay, that is a good absolute. Keeps the house clean.
I must not wash a dirty dish--whoops, something went wrong here.
As I overcome my absolute fear that washing a dish will result in a beating, I wash and dry the dish and put it away. I get punished--now my absolute rule is that I should never leave a dirty dish in the sink (so anywhere else) and I must never wash or dry or attempt to put away a dish (the struggle against these absolutes as an adult still brings on anxiety attacks and PTSD episodes).
My youngest child is autistic. They came home from their dad’s house one summer and accidentally spilled milk at the dinner table. When I found them, they were hiding, whiter than milk, and shaking so badly I thought they would break a bone. They had an absolute rule in place from dad’s house. I still don’t know what happened at dad’s, but the result was that it took years for them to drink from a glass again, and they barely moved at the dinner table in fear of accidentally spilling something again.
I have several students who have expressed the same frustrations. That punishments lead to rules that lead to punishments when the rule is avoided to avoid the punishment. Did that make sense? If not...welcome to the world of an autistic child trying to wade through the landmines of rules and punishments. Another big issue brought up by most of my students is that they are not listened to: an altercation happens, the other person gets to tell their story, then punishment is dealt to the autistic student based on the other student’s word alone. These students often state that they don’t matter, who they are doesn’t matter, what they want doesn’t matter. When other people are listened to and the autistic ignored, when others are protected from the autistic (not violence, but words or presence), and when others are defended against the autistic or in place of the autistic.
These all lay in the realm of how punishments are perceived by autistics and whereas punishments have negative effects on neuro-typical children, they can be amplified in the autistic child.
What do I do differently for my children and my students?
I make sure that a rule is explained as to WHY it is necessary, rules should be there for their safety, or the smooth running of a classroom and not arbitrary.
I NEVER say “because I said so”
I treat kids with the respect I expect in return. If I don’t treat them respectfully, why should they treat me that way? Did I earn it? Just because my DNA profile, adoption papers, or teaching certificate say I am in charge does not mean I have earned the right to be in charge.
I ALWAYS ask the child if they understand and if they have something to add to my explanation--and yes, sometimes I have changed my mind. Logic is a big thing and rules from when I was growing up don’t always apply to today.
I keep emotions out of explanations or consequences, and if I cannot do that then I back away and approach the issue later when we can talk calmly.
Why is this important for autistics?
Autistics desperately need to know the boundaries and the reasons why. If they can’t comprehend why something is necessary then they will not follow the rule.
I had a student who came to me, always in trouble for wearing a hat, even to the point of suspension. I told him that it was an age-old act of politeness for a man to remove his hat when in a building. He responded, “Why didn’t they ever just say that? I would’ve taken my hat off!”
Autistics cannot understand what “because I said so” has to do with a rule or a punishment. There is no logic to this.
If this phrase is used, it usually means that the rules are so arbitrary as to only appear when emotions or ego are in the way. Emotions are not a reason that autistics can understand very well, especially when they lead to contradictory rules.
Autistics are people. They matter. If they are treated like crap, they will treat the world around them like crap. They imitate others much more than neurotypicals do, because actions of those in charge are also rule-setting events for autistics. Hit the autistic and the autistic only understands that hitting is the answer to their emotional “because I feel like it.”
Autistics are people. They understand so much of what is going on. Having an open discussion about an event or rule is important. First, so the autistic (or any other kid) can understand why it is important. Second, all rules are not valid because times change, people change, evolution has happened, morality is better understood, science has shown us we were wrong, etc. This is how social change happens.
Discussion with your child about rules and consequences leads to comprehension about the greater world and how governments are formed, how silence and acceptance without question leads to things like the Holocaust. Raise a thinking child and talk about things---when emotions are calmed down.
Autistics often cannot think very well when their emotions are big, hence the meltdowns. You have to speak with minimal emotion to the child and set the stage for a logical partnership type of discussion. No one should be punished for voicing their opinions or engaging in conversation...this is where trust is formed, respect, and honor as you give each other these things and grow together.
If this is not what has happened between you and an autistic, it will take a LONG time to engage in meaningful discussion with an autistic! That “Once bitten twice shy” sentiment for an autistic is more like ‘100 times shy for every time bitten.’
To read more about spanking and corporal punishment in general
Thank you for reading.
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