|HOW IMPORTANT ARE STRUCTURE AND
DISCIPLINE IN RAISING AN AUTISTIC CHILD?
refrain from engaging in risky or hazardous behavior by virtue of their strong internal
behavioral inhibitions. Additionally, they have plenty of internally generated guilt over actions
they perform and yet turn out to be wrong. Discipline for the most part goes out the window
for sensitive children. All a sensitive kid needs is prompting by the parent that something she
did is wrong and the internal guilt mechanism will take over from there. Guilt in sensitive
children is so strong it may lead to fear learning and avoidance easily. Parents are encouraged
to be very subtle in pointing out any wrong doing by the child. In fact, parents are encouraged
to nurse this generated guilt and put it in perspective so the kid will understand that the
consequences of her actions are not so bad and that any untoward consequences are of a
limited and reversible nature. This is extremely important. Furthermore, parents are
encouraged to guide the child to engage in the same activity in a way that produces a positive
outcome. This helps in preventing fear and avoidance. Let us take an example. A girl helping
her mother garden inadvertently breaks an expensive pot. When the child watches her mother
getting upset, she does not realize that this only represents a material loss and one hour or
time. The child thinks she may have ruined her mother forever and guilts herself accordingly.
A wise parent would explain that the damage is only material and insignificant and would take
the child to buy a new pot. Critically, a wise parent would allow the child to handle the new
Traditional wisdom propagated through many generations has it that children need parentally
imposed structure until they become adults. When it comes to sensitive children, this is
somewhat of a sweeping statement that needs further scrutiny and dissection.
Sensitive children do need structure especially when overwhelmed by change. The question is
whose structure. A sensitive kid accepts and thrives in a structured environment, only when
she can maintain significant input into it. Sensitive kids have an internal [and often very rigid]
view of the type of structure they feel comfortable with. This view typically stem from the
kid’s natural inclinations and dictates of her inner self. This view is not as malleable as is the
case with non-autistic kids. Violating the dictates of an autistic child’s inner self can generate
lots of anxiety, withdrawal and non-responsiveness. Imposed structure as in rearranging their
toys or their room or drawers and so forth can have detrimental effects on their coping and
social functioning. More importantly, imposing a structure of the sort that the kid is allowed to
do certain things only at certain times and is forbidden from doing other things completely can
have traumatic effects on sensitive children. Structure in a sensitive child’s life has to be
negotiated. Even when harmful activities are forbidden, the child should hear a full explanation
and when necessary she should hear it several times. Logic works with sensitive kids but it
may take several attempts until it sinks in. However, logic should not be used to trick a
sensitive child into doing something she would not otherwise do. She may not forgive her
parents for exploiting her naiveté once she figures it out, even if she only figures it out years
An attentive parent will notice his child’s passions and makes sure to leave complete freedom
for the timetable necessary in pursuing these passions. If you notice that your child likes
painting and you go out and spend a fortune on an easel, sketch books and water colors and
your child does not touch it; that by no means implies that she is never going to touch it or
that she lost her talent. It only means that she will use this equipment when the right time
comes. One day, a few months later or even longer, after the parents’ huge disappointment,
they’ll wake up and find their child painting. There is a certain order of priorities and
prerequisites in a sensitive child’s mind. This order may not make sense to anyone else but
makes sense to the person herself. For example a sensitive kid may want to get her closet
organized and her favorite pants repaired and the butterflies flying again before she can start
painting. None of that has to make sense to any adults or to her peers either. It only has to
make sense to her because it is her individual coping mechanism. As a parent you can try to
disrupt this order at your own risk.
An attentive parent will let his sensitive child guide him through the structure that works best
for the kid. Inherited structure from the parent’s childhood have no bearing on the structure
sensitive kids need. Many parents are eager to teach their children some sports. Some
sensitive kids may have a knack for sports but not necessarily the one the parent thinks they
would; and not necessarily at the time the parent presumes. If your kid does not show interest
in one kind of sports, move on to other types. Besides, you may want to periodically go back
and check on interest in sports the kid did not show passion for initially. This is one example
of many on how to let a sensitive child guide her parents in the type of structure she prefers.
The one principle in choosing activities lies with observing the child’s inclinations and
providing exposure to the range of possibilities several times over.
An attentive parent will always explain the reason for forbidding any activities and will always
respect the latency [days or weeks] many sensitive children show between accepting the
reasoning and complying with the ban.
Many parents introduce their notion of what is good for the child into their child’s life as law.
“It is good to do your homework”; “you can’t watch TV until you finish your homework” and
so forth. Rigidity has little room in raising a sensitive child. Your kid may need time out
between school and homework as well as between most other activities. The timing and
duration of this time out is determined semi-consciously by the child’s mind. This is necessary
for a sensitive child in order to process the input she received during previous activities
thoroughly and broadly. Forcing your child into doing homework, or complaining about her
“laziness” is far from being helpful.
Parents impose homework in large part in compliance with school authorities. This section
pertains to autistic kids who make it to regular schools. Since the educational system is built to
fit the needs of insensitive kids, without any real consideration for the needs of sensitive
children, often homework about a subject discussed today is due tomorrow. This means that
the kid has to learn a new subject at school and do the associated homework later that same
day. However, sensitive kids do their thorough processing of new material mostly during sleep
and not during waking hours. This presents a conflict for them and could send them to
sensory overload and anxiety especially when the parent is compounding the problem by
enforcing the “rules” on them. Hopefully one day this will change and the educational system
will be actually based on the best natural circumstances necessary for learning.
Another problem with our educational system today is with homework that is due further into
the future but that comes with a deadline. This is without a question one of the worst
manifestations of ignorance by the system. For the purpose of explaining this problem let us
assign numerical values to efficiency on a scale from zero to 100 in the coming example. A
sensitive kid is working on a school project that requires 2 weeks of work at moderate
efficiency (40-70). When she was told about the project she was enthused since the project
appeals to her sense of history. She is capable of an efficiency of 100 but her brother is
making noises playing catch outside with a couple of other kids and her mother wants her to
go check out the spring collection at the mall; these things reduce her efficiency badly. She is
happy about her project and is giving it every waking minute at an efficiency of 70. She is
drowning in it. She goes to school the next day and the teacher announces that the project is
due in 3 weeks. Right away her efficiency drops down to 20 and she is consumed with
feelings of worry and inadequacy. She now hates the project, the teacher and is sick with
diarrhea and tummy ache and she can’t eat. Well, the shackles have just been slapped on; they
are pretty tight, and she is innocent. This is how sensitive kids feel about deadlines. They do
not like them, they cannot handle them and they feel helpless toward them. Deadlines almost
always hinder educational progress for sensitive children. There is a basic reason for that.
Sensitive children have to allow sufficient exposure to the project they are working on for
their mind to process, at its inherent timetable, all the different faces, aspects, and components
of the project in question. There is very little control the conscious mind has over the length of
this process. Ample time after exposure is needed for a certain level of maturity and
integration to be reached in the subconscious mind before that information or conclusions are
transferred to the conscious mind and finally take a shape others can appreciate. This process
has no regard to a deadline imposed from the outside and the kid has no way of bypassing this
process. She may not be able to explain the process either. Peter lynch, a legendary investor
and mutual fund manager writes in his book that it took him about 7 years of running the
Magellan fund at fidelity before he knew what to write in the quarterly letter to shareholders.
When he started, he would get the memo to write something for the shareholders every three
months and knowing there is no way around writing the letter he would write the same
standard letter he heard from his colleagues in the lobby or something he read somewhere
else. All the meanwhile, his performance was exceeding most other fund managers nationwide
and by a large margin. Why did it take him seven years until he was able to write a meaningful
letter; this is how long it took to fully comprehend the process in all its dimensions and depths.
Once that maturity was reached, he was able to move the process from the subconscious to
the conscious. He then became able to write meaningful (&brilliant) notes to his customers.
When the kid realizes there is no way around the deadline, and that she has been sick when the
last few projects were due, she switches to mediocrity and apathy about the project. This is
one common way through which brilliant sensitive kids fall back in school.
Hiring tutors is another example of a delicate decision parents may make. To begin with, hiring
a tutor could bare negatively on your child’s self-esteem if hiring a tutor means she is falling
behind her peers. Make sure you tell her that you are hiring a tutor because you as parents do
not have the time or competency to do the tutoring yourselves. And when you say that make it
look believable and matter of fact. Sensitive children do understand the intonations behind
sentences. They may not figure out the details but they know a negative or disappointed tone
when they see one. The tutor hired should be someone either sensitive or in-tune with the
needs of sensitive children. More importantly, the tutor should be flexible to accommodate the
shifting schedule of a sensitive child. By shifting schedule, I don’t mean that tutoring is taking
time away from other activities. I mean that tutoring can be suitable at times when learned
subjects are maturing in the child’s mind and may not be suitable at times when lots of new
information has been recently presented to the child.
There are many examples of moral rights that parents bring into raising a sensitive child. The
important thing is to keep what is assumed to be right and good by the parents within the
perspective of sensitivity and not separate form it. Nothing in a sensitive person’s life can or
should be handled separately from the inherent sensitivity.
Author: Rami Serhan, MD
(206) 659-1ASD (273)
Note: this article is an excerpt of the upcoming book, “PSYCHE-SMART AUTISM”.
Copyright 2010 Rami J Serhan, MD