Using punishment as an intervention for temper-tantrums in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Using punishment as an intervention for temper-tantrums in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Because many children with autism are unable to communicate in acceptable manners, it is quite likely that they may throw tantrums or act out their stress, anxiety, and confusion. As a matter of treating these temper tantrums, using punishment to cut them down is definitely an unethical way of treating his/her disorder because there are several side-effects associated with such treatment. Although punishment employed to cut down the undesirable behavior can be effective in eliminating the behavior that couldn’t be eliminated with time out and other techniques, there are various disadvantages associated with it.

The Cons of using punishment for children with Autism are:-

  • The research suggested that the conditioned suppression of undesirable behavior also leads to suppression of some desirable behaviors as well which is really harmful especially in the case of autistic children
  • There were several side effects noticed by researchers that were linked to using punishment as a treatment. One of them is ‘symptom substitution’ – refers to the replacement of symptom-focused therapy with another harmful symptom, i.e. onset of new symptoms. Eg:- the flapping of hands may get replaced by headbanging
  • It has also been seen by researchers that providing aversive stimuli may also generate and maintain escape and avoidant undesirable behaviors like leaving or removing the punishing situation, or the person giving the punishment to escape from the aversive stimuli/situation. This leads to a refusal to interact and obey the commands of the teacher/parent which ultimately leads to obstruction in therapy.
  • It may also elicit aggressive tendencies towards the punisher and objects related. The child may become highly violent showing hostile behavior leading to refusal of the child is participating in treatment and thus, failure of treatment.
  • Another evidence to discourage punishing the child is that punishment may increase rather than decreasing the aggressive behavioral tendencies as the child may become hostile/avoidant to the punisher/situation in which punishment is given.
  • It may also occur that punishment may lead to situations such that the punisher’s presence and attention lead to the child and therapy becoming more aversive and less reinforcing. It happens as a result of the conditioned response of the child towards the punisher for his/her punishment.
  • Also, it has been seen that this conditioning is associated with that particular object/situation only to which the punishment was applied, and thus, the improvement is highly restrictive and not generalized. Eg: punishment given for hand flapping will be applicable to hand flapping only and not apply to other stereotypic movements.

However, certain pros that can be related to using punishment for children with Autism are:-

  • It can be said to be effective in cases where other treatment options didn’t work for eliminating undesirable behaviors. Eg: in the case where time-outs and ignoring the tantrum didn’t work but smearing Tobasco sauce in the mouth of the child may eliminate his temper-tantrums.
  • The technique can show immediate results in terms of stopping the tantrums where time-outs and other techniques don’t show effect for a long time
  • As children with autism don’t understand the consequences, punishment can help them with the understanding of the results of performing an undesirable behavior such that it is harmful to them.

But, despite these pros, it is highly suggested to not indulge in any kind of punishment for children of any age and with any kind of disorder as it is not only immoral but also devastating for the child’s mental health.

The Arc [For People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities] and AAIDD [American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities] oppose using a kind of aversive techniques like deprivation, electric shock, isolation, and seclusion. It states that the intervention strategies used must not devoid the children of essential food or drink, cause them any sort of physical and psychological pain/injury and not make them feel humiliated/discomforted. (The Arc 2012).




About the Author

Simran Khurmi

I am currently pursuing my MSc in Clinical Psychology and have clinical exposure at various institutes. I have qualified for UGC-NET examination an

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