Should an Autistic Child Be Treated Like a Typical Kid?

From the "Ask a Question" inbox:
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I have a question concerning my own 9 year old daughter, similar diagnosis to your own. She is considered HFA, though her abilities and reactions are 'scattered all over the spectrum' (low, mid, high functions).

My question is: Am I wrong to treat her as I do my other children? She is the oldest child of 5. I do not give her a lot of leeway based on her diagnosis--what I mean is, her autism is not allowed to be an excuse for bad behavior.

She is aware of what is acceptable and what is not--no hitting other people, no cursing, no destroying the house-- and she receives the same types of punishments as her siblings. We do time outs and grounding from favored activities. Spanking is very rare and only as a last resort (she received a pop to the bottom for stabbing her brother with a fork)

I realize the difference between bad behavior and meltdowns from stress, along with other coping mechanisms in autism. My husband thinks I am wrong to 'expect so much' from her. I think that she's very intelligent and that I would be failing her if I just said 'she has autism' every time she misbehaved without giving her punishment or rewards.

Am I in the wrong? Am I damaging her by treating her like a typical kid?
My Response
The more I consider this question, the less certain I am that there is a "right" answer without knowing the child and family. That might seem evasive, a "cop out" to avoid answering, but I am going to explain why there is no one approach to this question.

First, I don't like any physical punishment because I don't even like the notion of being touched. Sensitivity to touch aside, I have a visceral reaction to even the slightest slap of a child's hand. I cannot explain it, but it causes me anxiety and pain to even contemplate such actions.

Being touched upsets me so much that the idea of a slap is unfathomable. That might be something to consider. I still recall one spanking from a grandfather. I cannot clear that memory from my mind. It's a horrible memory, even though he probably did nothing unusual for the time or situation. I had refused to eat the dinner prepared by my grandmother and demanded something I would eat. It might be one of only one or two times he even raised his voice, but that's a memory etched into my mind deeper than the hundreds of things he did for me. Maybe your child is different, but a visual memory like mine gets stuck on the negatives for decades… and I do mean decades.

Second, I memorize what is "right" and "wrong" but I don't always understand why something is deemed right or wrong. Worse, some actions that are "wrong" in one situation are "right" in another, and vice-versa. Ethical guidelines can be confusion and annoying. I have adopted a rigid system that makes some sense to me, even if it isn't always "right" -- at least it is consistent.

Since I do not like to see anyone or any creature hurt, that's the foundation for my ethical system. You hurt anyone or anything, you're "wrong" in my book. Period. I don't make exceptions and I don't forgive. I definitely don't forget, either. Even when I want to forget, I cannot.

I do not like lying or omitting facts. Truth is absolute to me. This means "white lies" and "social politeness" upset me, deeply, so I'm never going to be socially "right" in some settings. If I don't like someone or something, I will say so.

Most autistic individuals I've met and interviewed report similar ways of determining right and wrong. It's not instinctive and we seldom adapt well to changing situations. Wrong is wrong, period. But, that might not be the case for some individuals with ASDs. I know parents tell me about teens with Asperger's Syndrome who lie, cheat, and get into trouble at school. (I suppose you could call that a "normal" teenage experience.)

Without knowing a child, I cannot guess what he or she considers right and wrong. I have no idea how that person constructs an ethical system to guide choices and actions. Some autistics do create elaborate systems and navigate moral choices easily. Others, like me, struggle daily to comprehend actions. Many choices I make in a day are made only after tedious deliberation. I spent nearly 30 minutes today trying to decide which "must finish" task for two different employers had to be completed first. The debate had to be resolved by my wife because I was "intellectually paralyzed" by the various measures of what was the "right" thing to do.

As a child, my rigidity would get me in trouble as a "tattletale" or "snitch." To me, rules are rules, period. I've quit a job where I wasn't comfortable with the lack of ethical behavior. I don't like it when rules are ignored or even openly dismissed as meaningless. Why have rules if you don't follow them?

I do not believe in excusing "bad" behavior, if the individual has a clear understanding of why the action was wrong. If the person can give you a detailed explanation, from his or her perspective, then time outs, groundings, and other punishments seem not only reasonable but possibly necessary. I'm not sure how to deal with someone unable to explain right and wrong at all. I've met children unable to comprehend their actions, though, and I'm not sure any punishment would serve a purpose. Moral reasoning is necessary to construct an ethical system, even a rigid system like mine.

Time outs, sitting spots (steps are common in the U.K., corners in the U.S.), loss of privileges, and other consequences for negative behaviors seem reasonable and practical to me. But I am not a parent. I'm only a teacher -- and not a teacher of young children. By the time I meet students, they have developed ethical systems. Some are still developing, as young adults, but the foundations are present.

My advice is to constantly evaluate how well your child constructs ethical guidelines and moral reasoning. You cannot expect punishment and rewards to be effective without clear comprehension of those measures.

I teach a seminar session on legal compliance and written documents. To me, the law becomes what is "right" unless it cannot be logically defended. Even when a law doesn't seem logical, I would rather argue for changing it before I would consider breaking a law. I even try to drive the speed limit at all times. Colleagues don't understand such an approach to life -- they tell me disobedience is essential far more often than I believe it is. I believe I'd only break a law if it contradicted a higher principle in my system. (Protecting life always trumps every other law, regulation, or rule.)

This doesn't really answer the question, but that is my answer: every child, every individual, evolves morally and ethically at a unique pace and to a unique depth. I will never have the nuanced depth of some people. It simply isn't going to happen. But, that doesn't mean I cannot and should not be expected to behave in a socially appropriate, ethically appropriate manner.

My mother reminds me that parents and teachers get to determine what is "appropriate" in their house or classroom. I've never managed to master that concept. Even now, I manage to violate the norms of some colleagues. I struggle constantly with changing rules and expectations. At some point, I started to assume I'll be reprimanded often and not always understand why.

It might be one more reason I prefer to avoid social interactions and settings with other people. Why risk getting into trouble? After enough trouble in school, I reached a point of avoiding the risk of being reprimanded. I don't break rules out of disrespect, I simply don't always know the rules have changed from class to class or office to office.

Again, I know none of this is an answer. I can only tell you that I still struggle daily with understanding the rules of daily life and have been in serious trouble as a result. It's not easy to explain to other people, either, because rules are so natural to my colleagues -- even those colleagues known for breaking rules. (It is clear that there are rules to breaking rules. I don't even want to try to learn that system.)


  1. Hi, Doc Wyatt.

    Your response to the woman's question is, I think, not only interesting (as an insight into your own way of thinking on this issue) but also a very considered response to a query that cannot really be answered very simply. My hope is that the woman who sent it can see it for what it is: an insight into how one autistic person developed his own 'code of practice'.

    Given the content of the question, really, I can't see how you could have responded in any other way: there was not a lot of useful information in the question (no comment on the woman who asked, just about the question; and there may be very good reasons why there's a paucity of useful info), and so it would have been pointless to try and orient an answer to the behaviour of her child.

    I can't think of anything that I could have said that would improve on your response. I may have said some different things myself, based on my training background, but ultimately my response would not have been better than yours (and might, if I'm honest, have been confusing).

    This is a blog I love to read! I like your style.

  2. The answer IMO is always YES. Doesn't mean you don't make allowances but the core needs to be YES. Behaviour and social skills need to be taught. Right and wrong need to be taught. Recognizing that they NEED TO BE TAUGHT and not assumed to be known automatically by watching family or peers is the key.

    My 11yr old to this day doesn't know he has gone from non-verbal mild PDD to mild NLD. In his opinion he is as "normal" as the rest of the kids. The school and I have worked so his academics are up to and in math exceeding grade level. He's had public and private speech therapy. He has a computer at school and we've worked hard with dealing with the short term auditory and visual recall issues. We have dealt with the excessive behaviour and claustrophobia issues... actually we're off to the Ped's today to see if we can get some short term anti-anxiety meds for travelling.

    BUT, behaviour and social HAVE TO BE TAUGHT. Usually using a token style system and social stories. If you can role playing helps as well. Also, don't assume they will get it right all the time... mine knows all the rules of the road and forgets to apply them so he's not allowed on it very far. Luckily he has a farm to ride his bike on.

  3. I've written before that social stories and role playing don't work for me. They might for some, and there's no reason not to try. However, the point that must be emphasized is that one autistic child, teen, or adult, is only going to share *some* traits with other autistics. The best approach is the approach that seems to work for that one child -- whatever that is.

    Mr. Andrews (above) and other educational specialists generally follow the principle that every child has a mix of learning styles, maturity patterns, and so on. I have never been able to "role play" because I cannot imagine what others think instinctively. I need far more time (minutes to hours) to do what other people seem to do in 500 ms or less: analyze how another person "feels" in a situation.

    As a sideline to that: I write fiction and non-fiction. Writing allows me as much time as a I need to consider how a character might feel and it allows me time to research online or ask others how they might feel. So, writing works for me, immediate responses do not. The point is that I have to learn about others by interviewing and researching.

    I knew from an early age I seemed to get into trouble at school, often for things I did not do. I couldn't adapt quickly to the social rules and ended up the one blamed for some things. I also did speak when I shouldn't have -- I impulsively corrected adults as a child and still correct errors impulsively. There are rules about correcting people, but I hate incorrect data so much I either have to leave a room or correct the error.

    Every child is going to need a different approach. Some will work, some will not. In my case, many social skills have never and will never be achieved. It frustrates me. This leads to people asking, "If you know it isn't proper, why do you do it?" They cannot seem to understand how my physical (and yes it is a physical sensation) impulse to correct lies, omissions, errors, et cetera, is too much to bear.

    I cannot suggest what will or will not work for a child. I don't even know what will or will not work for my own students at the start of each class. It takes me weeks to know what is or isn't working. (That's one reason I wish students could remain with educators for longer times at the lower grades -- and year-round if at all possible.) Special education, and all education, take time to discover the student's needs and effective approaches to working with that student.

    I hope that explains my position a bit better.

  4. I just realized there is a separate question here, one I should address apart from discipline -- expectations for autistic children. It took until now to realize that is also part of the query, so I'll write a bit on that, separately.

    Sorry I didn't appreciate that underlying topic, too.

  5. I keep trying to comment and it erases it. Will be back, thank you for your answer.

    -Mama Stick {nickname for a pregnancy blog 'stick' is a pregnancy test}

  6. Be sure to read the newer answer, too.

  7. I have Aspergers, and I do think that to a certain exten, we should be treated like normal people. However, there should be some exceptions. We do want to be invited by normal people our age to go over to their house or on outings to places like the mall or going for a walk. But when explaining a rule or code of behavior, please be more specific than you would be with a person without Autism, because we are more rigid and concrete in our way of thinking. If you use words like always or never, please add words like unless, except, or until. I know a lot of people with Autism get frustrated or confused when people say things like, "sometimes," "if/when-then," "some," "unless," "except," "maybe," "might," "could happen," etc.. But I might have actually preferred if people replaced things like, "never do this," or, "don't do that," with things like, "only do this if.........," or, "this doesn't happen unless............" Or, "always do this," or, "it always happens this way," might be replaced with something like, "always do this unless," or, "it's always this way except.........."


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