Developmental Differences And Discipline: Finding The Middle Ground

There is a wide range of on-the-street, peer-to-peer advice regarding the parenting of children with autism, ADHD, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, or any other developmental difference. Social media, as it often does, tends to conglomerate this advice into one of two main paths: discipline the disability out of them, or just let them be themselves as they are.

Obviously, few would advocate allowing one’s child to bring serious harm to another person or leaving bruises on the child every time they so much looks in the wrong direction (at least I seriously hope!). You do have a few parents on the extremes, but most parents do find somewhat of a balance, understanding that the child’s behavior is influenced by their condition(s) while also trying to mold the child’s behavior into that which allows the child to function in school, at work, and in their relationships with others.

But then one does see high-profile figures such as Micheal Savage, a man condoned by Donald Trump, making the following remarks about autism:

“a fraud, a racket. … I’ll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out. That’s what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they’re silent? They don’t have a father around to tell them, ‘Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.'”

One does also see cases where a person with autism and/or related conditions does bring harm to someone, and while most people mention that punishment and/or therapeutic resources is needed, the action is explained away by some as them “not being able to help it” and sometimes “not even knowing what they’re doing”and that, because of this, it would be unfair to punish them.

Both of these are worrying.

Now, as I’m neither a parent nor a professional in the field of child development, I am not about to tell you how to parent. I don’t know how, either.

But allow me to give some insight as a person who has been that child with a developmental difference.

Statements like Savage’s are a major knee-in-the-gut; my parents (including my father, who always has been and still is 100% present and involved) and siblings had enough to deal with raising me, and now they’re being accused of being inadequate caretakers because of my neurological and behavioral quirks?

(I mean, it is true that my father has never told me to “act like a man”…but then that’s not something that most female children ever hear from their fathers…)

Trust me, they tried to discipline the autism out of me. They’ve tried yelling, bribing, rationalizing, begging, time-outing, therapy-ing, and occasionally even slapping my emotional-and-sensorimotor-dysregulation into shape. They’ve tried really, really hard, hard enough to keep them awake at night. They’ve tried for years, and, even today, they still try.

But my emotions don’t even listen to me, let alone to anyone else!

On the same token, though, it not being my fault that my brain and body work the way they do does not negate my responsibility to try and get along with the world as best as I can, nor does it negate the responsibility of my caretakers to help me get there.

Now, because I know that I am not wording what I want to say, especially below, as well as I perhaps could, allow me to say this to those who struggle with self-regulation and who behave “differently”: it is not your responsibility as a person with a disability (or as any person, for that matter) to make everyone around you comfortable all the time. Humans make each other uncomfortable all the time. There are some behaviors that exist for a reason and that need to keep existing. Stimming is one of them–many people have testified that repressing self-stimulating behavior is genuinely harmful to the person in question. By all means, stim on. There are also instances in which your form of communication–screaming, grunting, or gesturing/signing, for example–might make others uncomfortable. Let them be uncomfortable–your right to communicate your needs and desires comes first.

And as the parents and caretakers of said individuals, you protecting their rights to these behaviors will go a long way in their happiness and well-being.

But there are some behaviors that are considered more disruptive and discomforting than others and that do not always serve such an adaptive purpose, and, if it is at all possible to lessen these behaviors even a little, I believe that at least the effort should be made to do so. First among these is directly causing physical harm others–I do know that in a state of meltdown, your rational, caring part of the brain doesn’t always have full control, but I do believe that there is a benefit to learning the self-regulation skills to prevent that from happening whenever possible (avoiding jail, for one, and also avoiding retaliation by others. As sad as it is, there is a portion of society that does not care if your behavior/the behavior of your child is due to a disability; you mess with them, and bad things will happen).

In fact, self-regulation is a tool that, although it takes years, if not a lifetime, to master, can help a person better manage with the world around them.

It’s not my fault that my natural reaction to being upset is screaming, injuring myself or nearby objects, and throwing myself on the ground, but it’s also not the fault of general society that this is considered disruptive and discomforting behavior in public.

I know that I can’t help it all of the time, but I am also very grateful for the family members and therapists who have helped me to identify when I am at risk of becoming so overwhelmed and to take deep breaths and, if possible, take a break from the situation. I certainly have fewer public meltdowns than I did when I was young, and this generally makes my going about much easier.

I’m by no means saying that people who have meltdowns in public are careless or are not “trying hard enough.” Not by any extent! I am well aware that not everyone is able to exert much self-control during their most intense moments, and that is okay. Maybe we can’t avoid it all or even most of the time, but when it is possible to avoid it, we should put forth the effort.

And we deserve to believe that we are competent and able enough to at least put in that effort. Even if the final result isn’t perfect–heck, I scratched my face in Barnes and Noble the other day because I misplaced my phone–it’s a least something (at least I didn’t cry or scream, even though I very, very much wanted to), and even if that effort is underappreciated much of the time, even if people will tell you to “try harder” even though you’re already trying as hard as you possibly can (which is incredibly frustrating and disheartening; do try not to say that to your loved ones with mental or developmental differences),  there is something to be said for learning and practicing new skills, and even if no one else is proud of you, you should at least be proud of yourself.

So, what does any of this mean for the parents and caretakers?

I am a firm believer in what Temple Grandin says about parenting autistic children (and I believe that this applies to parents of children with a variety of conditions and circumstances):

“Build them up and draw them out. Stretch them, you have to stretch them. Stretch them past their comfort point… And don’t stretch them too far. What happen happens when you stretch a rubber band too far? It breaks.”

There’s definitely a learning curve in learning new skills, especially if those skills are those of self-regulation, but a bit of stretch is usually okay, as long as it is a small one.

I’m tempted to link to some “How To Teach Your Loved One Emotional Self-Regulation” article, but I know that parenting methods vary differently among any parents, let alone any parents with children who are developmentally divergent (although, I did find this article from Friendship Circle to be, if nothing else, an interesting read).

But, staying true to the theme of this blog, here’s my two pecans. Start slow and with small expectations. Reward even small achievements–if they take three deep breaths and then start crying, for example, applaud those three breaths and let them know that they’ve done well in trying. Help them identify when they are at risk of being overwhelmed or over-stimulated. Encourage them to discharge this over-energy in the least-disruptive manner that they currently have the resources to carry out, whether that be stimming, breathing exercises, biting on chewable jewelry, or even walking away from the situation altogether.

Most importantly, forgive the slip-ups. Forgive the blow-ups. Forgive the mistakes. When this does happen, don’t make them feel as though they have committed a moral wrong or that they are insufficient. Remind them that humans make mistakes and that there will always be another opportunity to practice those skills. Again, reward them for trying and assure them that they are good people who are doing their best.

You’re never going to make your child not autistic or ADHD or learning disabled or what-have-you with discipline alone (in some cases, you might be able to teach them to exhibit external behaviors in such a way that they no longer meet the clinical criteria for that condition upon any one given assessment, but even then, the child is still wired more-or-less the way they’ve always been wired). They’ll always be who they are, and that’s not only good but necessary. People are all different, and, thus, they all behave differently. This allows for the beautiful diversity of personality and talent that is human society.

But if one can learn how to lean their behaviors towards that which is generally accepted, at least while in public, then one can more easily manage oneself inside of this chaotic, incredibly humanity we inhabit. And I believe that this is something worth working towards.

P.S. For the neurodivergent who wish to work on emotional regulation themselves, I find mindfulness and even some tools from Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT, a therapy originally created to help with Borderline Personality Disorder but which shows promising results for people with a variety of struggles) to be useful. Chamomile tea also helps some, but I know that’s not everyone cup of…well, you’ll have to look around and see what works for you.



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