1-2-3 Magic – the discipline system that saved my sanity

When you have children on the Autistic Spectrum, finding an effective solution to help with discipline is not easy. Out two AS boys are high-functioning but often did not realise that they had reached the limits of what was acceptable behaviour. Our sanity as parents was sorely tried at times until I came across a book recommended to me by Nancy Williams of The Studio ADHD Centre near Dorking. Nancy does amazing work with the young people that come to her, including our eldest who, at the time, did not have a full diagnosis.

The book in question was 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (Advice on Parenting)
by Thomas Phelan. If you're thinking, oh it's just counting, and that doesn't work with my kids, then you might be surprised to find, as we did,  you've been doing it the wrong way.

The system is all about getting control back in a calm and effective manner and helping your children understand that you set the boundaries, not them. In order for it to work, you MUST be consistent, and carry through consequences religiously. This means consequences must be proportionate and deliverable.

We explained to the boys, as the book tells you to, that we were using a new system for discipline, what it entailed and that if we reached 'three' there would be consequences that they didn't very much like. This included removal of privileges, electronic gadgets, TV time, Xbox for a set period and it would be stuck to. Whining about it would result in no discussion, just another count. Well, it was worth a try and, although I will let you read the whole system for yourself in the book, I will say it certainly worked for us.

In fact, when the boys started up and my head felt like it was going to burst, instead of losing control, I would just say calmly, "Ok, that's a one." No discussion, no further attention paid to the culprit while he digested the number. I felt instantly back in control. The decision to behave or not was his and he knew if he continued, two would follow one as surely as night follows day. After a few goes, it began to work so well that we rarely got to three.

It works because it is unambiguous. Children know what it means and they know you mean it and will follow through. This is good for children on the spectrum who need continuity and stability. I can't say if it would work for children whose autism is more profound as I only have experience with my own boys. But it certainly has the potential for great succcess with Asperger's and ADHD kids. And it works for parents too. It gives you back control without being overbearing. It helps you draw a line in the sand: this behaviour is acceptable, that behaviour is not. I would never claim to be an expert in behaviour, I'm just recommending to you what worked for us.

These days we don't have to use the system much but it still works. The other day, my almost 14 year old was driving me insane. Suddenly, I remembered the 1-2-3 Magic system. "Okay, I said, that's a one for you."

He stopped what he was (annoyingly) doing and looked at me. "Are you counting me?" he asked incredulously.

"I think you'll find that I am," I replied, in a mild tone that did not reflect how irritated I felt inside.

"I'm thirteen!" he said. I shrugged and raised my eyebrow. He looked at me some more, then went off to do something else that was not annoying. Amazing, and proof that a system well-implemented and consistently applied can work.

The book has developed into a series. There's a 1-2-3 Magic for Teachers: Effective Classroom Disciplines , workbooks and one we've just bought, Surviving Your Adolescents: How to Manage, and Let Go of, Your 13-18 Year Olds that I will report back on. It's hard to know with our Asperger's boys what behaviour is as a result of their AS and what is just teenage-ness. I am confident this book will give me some tips that I will be able to apply.

I've just found Thomas Phelan on Facebook and Twitter and he also has a newsletter.

Follow

Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
Follow

3 Comments

  1. I have 9yr old twin girls. One has ADHD and the other is Bipolar. I started using 1-2-3 Magic but it goes something like this:

    That’s 1.
    MOOOOM! But she won’t give it to me!!!”
    That’s 2.
    MOOOOOOOOM! That’s not fair!!!!
    That’s 3. No TV the rest of the night.
    (Now screaming at me) I don’t CARE! (continues throwing a fit, screaming, slamming doors)

    OR

    That’s 3. You have to pick up the dog poo in the yard (or pick up the clothes on your floor or some other “do”)
    No! I’m not going to! (arms folded, stomps away, continues fighting with sister)

    HELP! What am I doing wrong? I’m following the book but When I get to 3, the girls just mock me and continue fighting, anyway. I’m at my wits’ end!

  2. Good afternoon! I’m the co-author of “1-2-3 Magic for Kids” and the “1-2-3 Magic Workbook” and I’m working on a presentation for parents about using “1-2-3 Magic” with children with autism. I stumbled across your blog post and I thought it was great! I’d love to discuss this with you, if possible. Take care!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.