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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)