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Why Neurodiverse Children Need Rules and Discipline

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

A quick definition of neurodiverse and neurodivergent


These two terms are used to describe various conditions related to cognitive abilities. It applies to conditions such as autism, dyscalculia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Neurodiverse individuals present themselves with low social interaction, inability to initiate or hold a conversation, lack social play, repetitive language, intense, focused interest, usually on an object or subject, fixation on certain routines and rituals. In young children, they are likely to have meltdowns and temper tantrums. They tend to hit, scratch and bite their caregivers. In grown children and adults, they are easily annoyed, lose their temper, and become angry and resentful.


The terms were coined by sociologist Judy Singer to avoid pathologizing the conditions and behaviors above and seeing them as variations in the human brain regarding learning, mood, attention, sociability, and other mental functions and not seeing them as abnormal. I write about the cons of pathologizing certain behaviors in my post Disorder or Not. But there are also cons to normalizing bad behavior because we fail to see it as a behavior problem. People who adhere to this theory see bad behavior as a symptom of a physical disability no different than people with physical handicaps who are provided environmental adaptations (wheel chair ramps, and braille).


“Thinking about behaviors as symptoms of a physical disability expands options for developing effective parenting and professional techniques. Dr Sterling Clarren tells the following story that captures what this means for caregivers and professionals. When visiting the library at the CDC he noticed that in each section on physical handicaps and conditions, the support literature focused on changing the environments to meet the needs of those with physical challenges. Arriving at the section addressing behaviors he was struck by how all the information in this section focused on changing behaviors. What if behaviors are symptoms of a physical disability? Trying to change behavioral symptoms of this disability may be as effective as beating the blind child who “refuses” to read the blackboard. Providing environmental adaptations for people with behavioral symptoms of a physical disability is as appropriate and effective as for people with more obvious physical symptoms. People with physical handicaps are provided with environmental adaptations to reach their full potential depending on the need: wheelchairs, ramps, prostheses, guide dogs, Braille, and assistive technology are provided. Laws have been passed to ensure the removal of architectural barriers that prohibit educational and employment discrimination due to disability. Children with FASD who’s physical disability includes brain differences are often seen as having problem behaviors they may get an “A” on Monday and an “F” on Wednesday. Without information about FASD, adults often see children with this behavior as lazy, unmotivated, or oppositional. If the children have FASD, the inconsistent performance may be normal for their disability. They are trying just as hard on “F” days as on “A” days. Before their disability is understood however, they are typically punished when symptoms of the disability appear.” -Diane Malbin, “Trying Differently Rather Than Harder: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders”


Yes, and on first glance this looks solid, but we help those with physical disabilities live to their fullest potential. By arguing neurodivergent children can't help their behavioral issues, and we shouldn't work to change the behavior does exactly what Dr. Sterling Clarren is attempting to avoid. It is akin to telling a blind person to live with their condition. We don't just change the environment for the blind and handicapped people; we help them read and move about to the best of their ability. We teach them skills to navigate the environment. We shouldn't sell them short, nor should we sell our children short on thinking they can't help but behave the way they do.


With most children, parents discipline when a child acts out or misbehaves. Good parenting will discipline early with a calm, loving demeanor. And if you are human, it is not infrequent for us parents to discipline from a place of frustration. This is most likely because we have allowed circumstances to escalate further than what we can tolerate. Much of child/family therapy involves helping parents discipline effectively and consistently before you get to your boiling point.

All too often, however, parents with neurodivergent children or if you like to use actual diagnostic terms such as autism, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or children with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD), and the like, get a pass on their behavior. But when this happens to a child who has the ability to understand and control their impulses, they discover that the rules do not apply to them.


With parents of clients with behavioral issues, I often lead with the question, how do they behave at school or with others such as grandparents? In which the reply more often than not is, great! "The teachers couldn't ask for a better student." But, "when he gets home, it's like he has all this boxed-up energy and frustration the tantrums are on!" What we have here is a child that can understand rules and consequences, and we need to work on the parent's discipline skills. A parent that subscribes to the theory seen above will excuse any bad behavior when clearly the child can behave providing the circumstances.


I am not making light of the fact that we should be more accepting and patient with behavior in severe cases, like what we may see in severe cases of autism. Still, more often than not, parents of kids with mild autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders excuse the behavior. Everyone wants to believe that their "problem" child is exotic and complicated. They want the therapist to discover some deep-seated problem and wave a magic wand. They are surprised that something as simple as parent management training where parents learn to become better disciplinarians and are trained to reduce escalation can help.


The Importance of Discipline and Structure:


Structure and discipline are crucial for children with neurodevelopmental disorders. They need a safe and structured environment more so than neurotypical children. Growing up without discipline is an additional handicap they cannot afford!


It is attractive to think most children with a neurodevelopmental disorder as being incapable of understanding rules and consequences, but that simply is not the case. A large majority of neurodevelopmental disordered children understand and comply with basic rules of conduct when the parent has the proper skills to do so.








Odell Terrell


Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.

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