Fact sheet: information and discussion on punishment for managing behaviors in children on the autism spectrum


Punishment results from applying a penalty for behavior. It is identified as being an aversive event, meaning that a person would typically try to avoid it. Punishment is further defined as being a negative response to behavior. Punishment denies a person the opportunity and the right to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own behavior.


Even in more severe cases of autism, people can be provided with choice and opportunities to take responsibility for their behavior. Research and ethical practice finds that aversive strategies are inappropriate in the vast majority of cases. Instead, non-aversive, positive behavior support strategies are encouraged. Globally, differences exist in what people perceive as punishment and consequences. These differences exist as a result of the values and attitudes of society and its members.

a history of punishment

Punishment has been used for centuries as an immediate response to inappropriate or challenging behavior. Traditionally, behavior modification was concerned with controlling and eliminating behavior and relied on restrictive and negative approaches to do so. This doesn't make it right. There are several reasons why some people continue to use punishment as a behavior management strategy.


Human response

Punishment usually entails power and control. Often, after a particularly difficult or emotional incident, humans feel the need to regain control of the situation by exerting their authority. The feeling of wanting revenge and restitution for the behavior is natural, as is the desire to change the behavior., protect the person and others and express our emotions. Punishment has a function to satisfy the punisher, rather than any real function for the person.


Few alternatives

In many situations, people may feel they have no other options for responding to the behavior.


Child rearing practice

Parents often use punishment in the raising of their children. It is a learned behavior through family culture. For example, if you don't do the washing up, there will be no TV for a week. As a result, many people continue to believe that this is an appropriate method of responding to adults.


Literature/professional usage/expert’s advice

Historically, punishment was frequently reported in texts, by professionals and experts in the field, as being the most effective method of managing challenging behaviors. It is only recent contemporary thought that has challenged this.


Myth of effectiveness

This method of responding to behavior usually results in immediate, although only short-term changes of the behavior within a specific environment. There is a belief held by many that punishment is the most rapid way of gaining control over a situation.


Reinforcement history

Punishment works to gain control over a situation, yet does not provide long-term behavior change. As a result, when people find themselves in situations where they are challenged and need an immediate response, because punishment has had an immediate response in the past, they will often resort to such strategies again.


Why use alternatives to punishment?

Alternatives to punishment are used for a number of reasons:
• Ethical considerations
• Administrative and legal considerations
• Empirical and clinical considerations.


Ethical considerations

Behavior occurs in a number of different contexts. Punishment however only results in change in the immediate context. The underlying purpose of the behavior is to communicate a message. Punishment denies this attempt to communicate. It is also important to reflect ethically on whether the response to challenging behavior improves the person’s quality of life.


Administrative and legal considerations

In an increasing number of countries, there are laws which prohibit the use of punishment techniques and promote dignity, respect and least restrictive alternatives.


Empirical and clinical considerations

Punishment is not effective in the long term with regard to changing behavior. Whilst it is an immediate response and produces rapid and significant change in behavior, it is not proactive and does not teach alternatives for a long-term change in behavior to occur. It is generally accepted that punishment is only effective for its duration, and once the response is complete, the behavior generally returns. Also punishment almost always elicits aggression from the person.


alternatives to punishment

Parents are strongly encouraged to read about the wide range of behavior strategies available that provide alternatives to punishment. A number of these feature on the Behavioral Issues and Life skills page of this website.


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Punishment results from applying a penalty for behaviour.  Even in more severe cases of Autism, people can be provided with choice and opportunities to take responsiblity for their behavior.