Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. One of the helpful outcomes from sharing this story is that a few parents and autistic adults have offered some ideas about how to handle this kind of challenge going forward. Forgive me for going into some detail in the next few paragraphs, but I really would love your perspective, so I’m going to give you some more context in the hope I can then ask for your thoughts.

Just to be clear, I didn’t see sticking to our YouTube agreement as a matter of “teaching a lesson” — he’s not in a position to learn anything when he’s melting down. I saw it as a matter of living up to our agreement, so he has the security of clear boundaries and consistency. When we reach the point of full meltdown (which happens less and less, as both our son and we have gotten a lot better at de-escalating and heading them off), I just have to focus on providing safety and calm (and keeping myself from getting triggered), so I try not to change the plan/approach when we’re in the middle of a crisis.

We definitely *do* work hard to support our son’s need for routine — poor guy, he could not have found two less routine-oriented parents to be born to. We also focus on helping him reduce and survive his anxiety, rather than impose “consequences” (a.k.a. punishment) for the behaviors it can lead to. I let him make the choice to stay out of class for the day because I trusted him when he said he just didn’t have it in him to go to class without his support worker, even if I was there. I offered him the option of having my phone in the car for anything EXCEPT YouTube, and once he got upset, I tried to rub his back, which often calms him.

Ironically, the whole idea of offering YouTube time as a reward was a result of us realizing that taking away screen time on rough days was punitive and counterproductive, because those are the days he needs it most! So we thought that letting him have YouTube (which was previously weekends-only) as a reward for going to class might be a better approach — but we are certainly rethinking that now!

What we really struggle with, and where I’d love to hear from you and other autistic adults, is whether and how to offer our son rewards without those rewards becoming “punishments” when he doesn’t get them. In general I’m pretty leery of rewards, both because it smacks of the ABA/behavioralist approach that sometimes makes raising children feel like dog training, and also, because it can make it hard to develop intrinsic motivations. But our son LOVES having rewards/incentives — he’s always lobbying for some new rewards program that will let him earn more game time or Lego Dimensions packs or candy or whatever. And I like to see him participating in developing a game plan! But then, if he doesn’t GET the reward he’s looking for, it becomes punitive.

What do you think? Is there a place for reward systems? If yes, how would *you* have wanted them to work for you, as a kid?

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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