I’d like to put a question to you. It’s something I’ve been struggling with for quite some time. Should you punish a child that does something wrong, something bad, without even realizing it? Not only do they not understand the magnitude of what they have done, but they intellectually can’t even understand the difference between right and wrong yet, they just aren’t there. I’m not speaking of the neuro-typical child. I’m not speaking of a child who, after being told not to hit, understands (on any level) the concept that hitting is wrong because it hurts someone and not hitting is right because it is kind. I’m not speaking of the neuro-typical child that understands emotions – theirs and others. I am speaking of my child – an autistic child, who at this point in her development isn’t far enough along to grasp all the concepts of “right and wrong”. Nor, does she understand the consequences of putting herself in harm’s way. She doesn’t understand how horrible and how dangerous some things are, to herself and to others. She doesn’t understand how scary, and emotionally distressing her actions can be to me, her mother, or Roger, her father. She has a very minimal, if any, concept of right and wrong. But, then again, what six year old really does? And that is my catch twenty-two. Should I or shouldn’t I punish her as I would a typical child?
Let me give you a few scenarios. Then you can better understand my dilemma. Maybe you will be able to answer my question, or give me some advice.
The Scenario: Mia really enjoys the feeling of a wide variety of textures, like shaving cream, paint, jell-o, vaseline, silly putty, sand, etc. Due to her sensory processing disorder she uses many of these items during different therapy sessions. Because of that we often allow her to play with these things in a “safe” environment — with mats and such to protect the surfaces. We are trying to teach her that there is a time, and a place, for everything.
Just a few months ago, after I walked downstairs, Mia took a HUGE tub of vaseline off my dresser. I had only just reached the kitchen when I heard her upstairs making a commotion – this is never a good sign for my personal belongings. I rushed back up to my bedroom to find one hand fully submerged in the tub, while the other smearing vaseline all over the place. My comforter, pillows and the surrounding walls were only a few of the things devastated by this vaseline storm (to mention nothing of her face, her hair, and her clothing). My room was shiny and it smelled bad. She was laughing hysterically and having a great deal of fun. Lovely. To make matters worse, vaseline is virtually impossible to wash off – it’s impermeable on any surface be it the body, clothing or even walls.
The Punishment: I made her help me wash herself, the walls, the laundry, and put the bedding back on – this was more like a fun game for her. She thoroughly enjoyed it. I told her she had made “Mommy feel sad and mad.” We also discussed, and she repeated, when and where to use certain items, what they are for, and my never ending direction: ALWAYS ask Mom or Dad first.
The Scenario: Mia has a tendency to get in the bathtub with one toy in her hand. No matter how much coaxing, asking, pleading or begging I do for her to stock-up on them, she won’t. But the minute she is submerged in the soapy water she remembers the other toys she wants. And then my wild goose chase begins. She will name one toy, one animal for me to get. I’ll get it and we will repeat the motion until she either has all she needs or I finally say “no way, no more.”
This bath time was no exception. She sent me out to get a platypus. While I was conducting my search Mia shut the door and, I believe, by chance accidentally pushed the lock in – locking herself in and thus locking me. What was worse still, Mia was currently in the bath tub with the water running.
The first few moments were met with a relative calm, I still thought I could and would easily get the door open. Maybe Mia would even open it for me. But as the time passed I began to realize that that was not a possibility. The calm feeling I had evaporated and was replaced with a panic of extreme magnitude. I was frantic. I threw myself repeatedly into the door. I kicked it as hard as I could, over and over again. It did not move. Not one inch. After some time I got a hammer and a knife. With these two tools I broke off the doorknob and gained entrance to the bathroom.
There was Mia; happily lining up her toy animals, in typical fashion, along the edge of the tub, with the water swiftly pouring over the side. As I entered Mia looked up at me excitedly and said, “Platypus?”As in, did you bring him? She looked up at me as if there was nothing wrong. She looked up at me happily without the slightest realization of how dangerous a situation she was just in, without the slightest realization of the absolute horror she had caused me. I still wonder if she even heard me screaming and loudly beating the door for a full ten minutes. I still wonder how she could have not.
The Punishment: None. I can honestly say there was no punishment. I was so scared for her that when I saw that she was fine I literally jumped in the tub with my pants on and hugged her. I was soaked but as I was standing there with water up to my knees all I could do was thank G-d she was safe. Afterwards, while I cleaned the massive amount of water off the floor, I explained to her what she had done wrong. I talked about leaving doors open and shutting off the water. I talked about people asking for help. I talked about helping people who ask for help.
The Scenario: When Mia is really excited she stims a lot. This is her way of processing that emotion. She has a hard time processing more than one sense at a time. Her brain must process each individual sense independently, instead of all at once. When Mia is stimming she tends to block out most senses. She will shut her eyes (one or both). She will cover her ears or make a humming/droning sound to block out all other auditory senses. Because of this she sometimes doesn’t hear what you are saying, or she hears it but doesn’t process it – she is already trying to process so much.
During the snow storm last week we were getting ready to go outside to play. After I bundled Mia up I realized I didn’t have my cell phone. Mia was happily jumping, running, and flapping her way around our kitchen when I told her I was going to go retrieve it. I told her to wait patiently for me and when I came back we would go outside to play. I went upstairs to get my phone and when I came back down the front door was wide open. The snow was coming down quickly and Mia was gone. My heart skipped a beat and without a thought I ran into the cold without a jacket. On my feet, only slippers. Luckily fate guided me to her exact location – I found her contentedly playing around the corner and down about five condos amongst the “shaky nut trees”.
The Punishment: I made Mia come inside for an hour. I told her that she had scared me and that what she had done was not good and not safe. I tried to explain to her that she is still very little and needs her Mommy and Daddy to help her when she is outside the house. After the hour was up we went back outside to play in the snow. The whole time we were out there I told her how impressed I was that she was listening and waiting for me. (She really was, for the moment atleast.)
The Scenario: Mia needs order and organization. Things should always be precisely where they go, and how they go. This is a pretty typical tendency among some autistics, but it is also a tendency of mine. Items need to be put precisely in their allotted place, doors must be shut and lights turned off. Everything in it’s rightful place.
Unfortunately, today I made a mistake. I left the door open. And Mia locked me out. Out of the house. I was taking Henry outside. I unlocked the door and locked the deadbolt so it couldn’t be shut from the inside. I didn’t think Mia would bother with it. I also I thought I was being sneaky. If she did try she wouldn’t be able to shut it. Oh, how I underestimated her, once again. I didn’t bother to bring my keys outside with me. I wasn’t going far. I wouldn’t even step off the porch. Big mistake. Henry instantly pulled me and, of course, I quickly followed his lead down the three steps. It was then that I heard Mia at the door; echoing my daily command, “Mia shut the door.” I turned around to see my daughter unlocking the deadbolt. I swear it happened in slow motion. I ran up the steps. I was too late. She shut the door. And, when doing so, had placed her hand over the popped out lock, pushing it in and locking me out.
To my credit I stayed rather calm. I flipped over my favorite flower pot and stood on top of it so I could see through the kitchen window. I was screaming her name while simultaneously ringing the doorbell. After about a minute and a half of watching Mia run and jump around the living room she finally sauntered around the corner and into the kitchen. She noticed me outside the window, probably looking like a madwoman. Maybe she had even heard me, or the doorbell, finally. She smiled, giggled and got really excited, flapping her arms. I asked her to open the door and to my great surprise and her never-ending credit, she did. She walked right over and opened the door. She let me in. When she closed the door behind us she said, “Mia shut the door.”
The Punishment: She didn’t receive one. I was so proud of her for listening to my command, through the window. I was so proud of her for knowing that I needed help that there was no punishment. Actually, to the contrary, I praised her. I had asked for help and she had obliged. Someone had asked something of her and she had complied; answering the call swiftly and precisely. Proud.
You see, the curious thing about raising an autistic child is this: I never know how to act. Or, rather, I never know how to react. I don’t know if I am making the right moves. I don’t know if I am being naive when I choose not to scold her. When it comes to parenting Mia I guess I just don’t know the difference between right and wrong.
So, now I will ask you once again; what do you do when a child does something wrong but they can’t fully grasp the difference between right and wrong?