Q. My 5-year-old son has Asperger’s, and I’m working to learn about his needs and how to handle discipline. I have a 9-year-old daughter who didn’t behave the way my son does. So, what should I do when, for example, he refuses to come to the dinner table?
A. All kids are different when it comes to getting them to do what you want. Asperger’s adds another layer of challenges. I’m a fan of behavior modification. When I want a different behavior, I try to discover why the child is behaving the way he is. I ask myself, “Is it reasonable to expect him to change, given his developmental stage?” If yes, I think about what it would take to change the behavior. Young children respond better to positive reinforcement. I suggest you reserve punishment for safety issues. Here are some ideas:
- Provide some predictability by giving your child the same special plate, cup and utensils and the same place at the table. Kids like sameness, and this is especially true for kids with Asperger’s. Make your child’s chair special by putting his name on the back, referring to it as a throne or decorating it in some way.
- If your child is playing away from the table before the meal, give him progressive warnings that activities are about to change. Young children usually don’t respond well to sudden activity switches.
- Seat your child at the table well before dinner and give him something to do, like coloring or playing with wooden beads. Or give him a bunch of grapes and ask him to put five grapes in a cup and then eat one grape.
- Study your child’s eating habits. Does he avoid all green foods (common in young kids), have only five foods he’ll eat, or refuse new foods? Some parents report their kids mainly select foods based on texture. This suggests seeing if your son likes, for example, smooth peanut butter versus crunchy. For kids who refuse new foods, put only a small bit on his plate, and do this every night for 15 nights. If he hasn’t touched the new food during that time, move on to a different new food. Or try introducing the new food when you know your child is hungry, such as when he gets home from school.
- If you’re concerned about your son not getting enough nutrients, try letting him eat by himself before or after the family meal or put a plate of his favorite foods out and let him discover it. Observe to see if he eats more or differently when he’s alone. Sitting at a table may be less important than meeting your child’s nutritional needs.
- Call no attention to your child eating or not eating. The less said, the better. Meals should be a pleasant time, not a win-lose game. Do consult with a nutritionist for some additional ideas.
I commend you on serving a family meal and working to learn about your son’s needs. While your son will behave differently than his sister, he has gifts and talents you’ll discover with patience and observation. The more you learn about autism, the better you’ll be at helping him function at his optimal level, which could eventually include sitting at the table.
Now, a note about Asperger’s: While we use that term here, the American Psychiatric Association and health care professionals mostly stopped using it in 2013 with the advent of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition. This manual folds Asperger’s into autism spectrum disorder. Asperger’s is now referred to as a mild form of high functioning autism.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.