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Today my 7-year old child was caught stealing in their classroom. They suffer from light Asperger's, so I'm not sure that they even notice having done something wrong. I'm not eager to punish my child since in the past I've noticed that punishment doesn't change much. What can I do to prevent something similar from happening again?

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Hello and welcome to Parenting! To explain my edit, "it" is not used in English to refer to people. If you want to use the child's gender, feel free to replace with "he" or "she" :-) – YviDe Mar 14 at 14:11
    
@YviDe Thank you for your edit. You're right that I'm no native speaker and I used it to not disclose the gender – Zutroy Mar 14 at 14:14
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"They/their" is commonly used in English when one doesn't want to bring gender into it. :-) – anongoodnurse Mar 14 at 14:18
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Asperger's may make it difficult for a child to see someone else's perspective and thus reason ethically through empathy, however, that does not mean that they cannot readily understand concepts of ownership and rules of acceptable behavior. Indeed, arguably they are better at the later than the average child, so they can begin ethical reasoning through rules. But also, don't give up on empathy, it may be more difficult and may take longer, but it is not inaccessible (not for mild Asperger's anyway, further along the spectrum is a different story). – RBarryYoung Mar 14 at 21:21
up vote 44 down vote accepted

As someone with mild Asperger's, I think I can shed some insight onto this situation. Let's look at what happened, as well as giving some ways to prevent this type of behavior in the future.

The Event

As a 7-year-old, your child should already have a basic sense of right and wrong - don't hit others, be nice to their parents and teacher, etc. Where the line blurs for some young children is the concept of ownership. While this is a naturally learned boundary for the vast majority of children, Asperger's causes most of those "natural" boundaries to be formed differently.

So what does this mean? As we often assume normal development in most children, it's likely that the "normal" boundaries were never especially reinforced for your child. Concepts like ownership boundaries are complex, but Asperger's artificially tries to "simplify" it. That is, your child created their own boundary that "makes sense" to them. Phrases like: I need/want this object, therefore a classmate wouldn't mind if I took it or Sally wouldn't mind if I took her pen because I don't mind if someone took my pen are all possible configurations.

Mind-Blindness

This was a concept I was introduced to in order to better explain the how and why of Asperger's. Basically, mind-blindness is the core of Asperger's. Take a look at this situation, for example:

Sally has a choice to hide a ball under one of three objects: a box, a chair, and a table. She chooses the box and leaves. Not long after, Adam enters the room. Where does he look for the ball first?

When tested on questions like this one, children with Asperger's would almost always answer "the box". Why? Because Sally put the ball under the box, of course! Mind-blindness is the inability to think of "the other side" of things, such as in terms like Billy should know where the ball is because I know where the ball is.

In your case, your child made an incorrect conclusion - assuming that taking something that wasn't theirs was okay - with other people's feelings that, to them, made perfect sense.

Learning From Mistakes

Seven years old is still very young. Your child is learning a lot at this age, possibly in more ways than one. This incident can shed some insight into how your child thinks. They can also re-learn certain concepts from teachers and their parents, such as boundaries of ownership. If you haven't already, I highly recommend getting Tony Attwood's The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. or his guide for parents. Both of these books summarize classic symptoms and gives parents insight on how to solve problems with their child.

This incident is a prime opportunity to better understand what your child is thinking, and how you can plan ahead for the future. Keep in mind that this works both ways - you and your child both benefit from understanding one another.

Punishments

As with any child, it is very important to reinforce concepts of right and wrong. @anongoodnurse explains it best - the child should be told that what he did was wrong, and reinforce that if it happens again.

To add to this, though, it is vital that you properly explain why you're punishing them. Sitting down and having a discussion is important for children with Asperger's, as it gives them an opportunity to talk and explain themselves. From there, you can demonstrate the "correct" behavior for the future.

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I would also answer under the box, because I can't imagine a ball hidden under a chair or a table - it can obviously be seen there. I wonder if all those tests are like this... – Tomáš Zato Mar 15 at 15:27
    
@TomášZato The version of that problem I heard involved one child hiding the object and leaving the room, then another child moving the object to a different location before the first child returns, and asking where the first child will look for the object. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally%E2%80%93Anne_test – Ajedi32 Mar 15 at 19:50
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@Thassa We had a talk about the event and my child nearly literally confirmed what you said. Thank you also for the book recomendations; I'm going to look after them – Zutroy Mar 15 at 20:14
    
@Ajedi32 Thanks for clarifying, now it makes sense. – Tomáš Zato Mar 15 at 20:20

Your child may not realize that what they did was wrong, but if you don't teach them that taking things belonging to others is wrong, they won't learn (others might assume they've learnt that at home), and will face more difficulty in the future for it.

Punishments are meant to hurt somehow; you don't need to punish them. You do need to talk with them and explain/teach as you would to any seven year old why it's wrong. Kids with mild Asperger's don't have cognitive impairments; they certainly can learn what behaviors will result in undesirable consequences.

If this was the first time, I would just talk to them and let it go at that (plus an apology to those affected.)

If it happens again, more conversation needs to take place about boundaries (what is theirs and what isn't) and what consequences they will encounter if they repeat the behavior.

Setting appropriate consequences is a challenging part of parenting. In my home, consequences were proportional to the "infraction" and were directly related to it. Repairing any damage done was also required: replacing something out of their own money, apologies if appropriate, etc.

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@TimB - Many thanks! D'oh! – anongoodnurse Mar 14 at 19:57
    
Thank you also for your input. Too bad that one can't accept two answers. – Zutroy Mar 15 at 20:16
    
@Zutroy - Happy to help. It is expected that you will choose the answer that was most helpful to you. :) Personal experience is invaluable. – anongoodnurse Mar 15 at 20:17

Since you mentioned Aspergers, one possible problem is that the child is less empathetic than typical, and is unable to easily comprehend mentally the damage they cause to another child by stealing.

One approach I saw working very well with an Asperger's child is that the punishment - following a detailed explanation of hows and whys - is that they have to take something they themselves own, and give to another child as restitution for theft.

This acts on both levels:

  • Because the child experiences a loss of a belonging, they can now empathize easier with others in same situation.

  • Because it is explicitly framed as consequences of theft, they also now have negative reinforcement regarding the behavior extrinsically. While it may be less effective long term compared to intrinsic correction, it is still valuable.

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You explain that taking stuff from people that own it is wrong and that your child should not do it again. If your Asperger is more than just a popular diagnosis, this will be all it takes.

It may make your child overreact completely when others take something from him/her or someone else and/or expect him/her to share, and you may have to deal with that at some later point of time.

That may end up a lot more work and ongoing effort than stopping the stealing from your child.

So I'd try avoiding overdemonizing what happened. Save the bigger guns for repeat offenses. Aspergers tend to cater themselves for blowing stuff (of the kind that can be governed by rules rather than per-case empathy) out of proportion.

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The child almost certainly knows that it's wrong, but did it anyway. Perhaps just to see what would happen (testing the limits) or whatever. Rather than pontificating on the ethics from some holier-than-thou platform, the best thing may be to explain what are the kinds of negative consequences to a person who keeps up that kind of behavior, which make it a poor choice. Also, the child should be involved in the damage control: apologizing for the behavior, making amends and promising not to repeat it, to see how much trouble it has caused. It may also be useful to find out why he or she did it; what was the motivation. Simple desire for the stolen item? The thrill of stealing? Getting even for some perceived wrongdoing? Or some sense of entitlement to the item? All these shades are important; stealing isn't all the same. The child should understand that you're probing with such questions not for yourself to obtain the answer, but so that the child should examine his or her own motivations, and be honest with him or herself. Also teach the child about the importance of not making up a fake reason why you did something after the act to justify it to others or rationalize it to oneself: the importance of searching inside for the original, true reason.

Ultimately, it's up to the child whether he or she wants to keep making that poor choice and grow up to become a thief. In that case, he or she needs to understand the importance of being a smart thief and not getting caught. If you're going to make that choice, then be good at what you do. The most important thing is avoiding the negative consequences to oneself, whether by making the right choice, or in perpetrating the wrong one.

(I suspect this point is next to impossible to make to a seven-year-old without appearing to condone the behavior. If the child's stealing hasn't abated by age thirteen and fourteen and he or she is still getting caught, it may be time to face it from that angle. Either become a consummate thief who doesn't so much as attract the slightest suspicion, let alone get caught, or else just put an end to the compulsion once and for all.)

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Well, I'm missing the Asperger aspect, which was clearly the main focus of the question. And while perhaps trchnically correct, encouraging a teen to become a better thief is morally plain wrong. – Stephie Mar 16 at 7:30

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