Lying or Wishful Thinking: Which One Is Your Youngster Doing?

So, you have just caught your child lying to you! Now comes a consequence, right? But wait a minute! Was he really lying, or was it a trait of his or her disorder?

Children with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism (HFA) may puzzle their moms and dads by (a) the quantity and poor quality of their lying and (b) the fact that traditional disciplinary strategies don't seem to change the behavior. For these special needs kids, it may be helpful to think less in terms of “lying” and more in terms of "wishful thinking" (i.e., they often say what they would like to be true, rather than what is clearly and objectively true). This may happen for several reasons:

1. Some Aspergers and HFA children can't predict cause and effect. Your youngster throws a ball and breaks a window. His culpability in the act seems clear-cut to you. But a youngster who has trouble with cause-and-effect thinking may not be able to make the connection between throwing a ball and breaking a window. In his mind, if he didn't intend to do it, he didn't do it.

2. Some children on the autism spectrum don't distinguish between fantasy and reality. What is objective to you may be subjective to your youngster. If one truth is as good as another, your youngster may select the one that seems, in his mind, to best suit the occasion.

3. Some of these children don't know what's true. Kids who behave impulsively may not have a clear awareness of what they have done. Kids who have trouble with language processing may not have understood what was asked or expected. Kids with sensory differences may know only what they feel.

4. Some know that the truth may make you (the parent) angry, and they want to please you. If a youngster has done something wrong -- whether due to impulsivity, compulsive behavior, self-protective behavior, language processing problems, motor planning problems, or other causes related to disability -- he may try to make it right by telling you what he thinks will make you happy.

5. Some children are just trying to get in the conversation. Children with limited life experience or limited vocabulary may want to have something to say - but no true contribution to make. Coming up with a story, however fanciful or false, may seem like the only way to participate.

6. Many of these kids are stressed. If you know that your youngster can't think calmly and clearly when stress levels are high, don't be surprised if you see lots of crazy, stubborn lying in that situation.

7. Most Aspergers and HFA children are telling “their” truth. They often experience the world very, very differently than their mother or father, but that does not make their experience false. If your youngster stubbornly, desperately clings to a declaration that you feel is untrue -- water's too hot, work is too hard, an object can't be found -- ask yourself if it might be only untrue to you.

If your youngster has legitimate special needs that may lead him to tell “wishful thinking” instead of the truth, think carefully before giving consequences for lying. It's important for children to know that they should tell the truth, sure, but if the lying is not deliberate, stiff consequences will teach nothing. When your child engages in “lying behavior,” ask yourself if he is doing so with malice and intent. If not, try these techniques for putting more truth in “wishing”:
  1. Accept remorse as genuine.
  2. Be clear and even-tempered in your expectations.
  3. If the wishful thinking in question requires a response, give a brief, judgment-free time-out.
  4. Leave your youngster unsupervised as little as possible, so you always know the score.
  5. Make sure you have your youngster's attention when you ask a question.
  6. Make sure you tell more truth than fiction yourself.
  7. Respect your youngster's reality, and be open to compromise.
  8. Stay as unemotional as possible when getting to the truth of a situation.
  9. Take "I don't know" as an honest answer.
  10. Tell your youngster what you think happened instead of demanding an explanation.

How can I tell if my child is lying – or simply using wishful thinking?

If you pay careful attention to your youngster's behavior, it will help you tell if he or she is lying. Here’s how:

1. Look at the youngster's facial expression. Kids who are telling the truth have relaxed faces that usually show an emotion that matches what the youngster is saying. If a youngster is lying, however, his face may show anxiety caused by knowing that he is telling a lie.

2. Listen carefully to what the youngster is saying. Stories that are false may contain inconsistencies or elements that don't make sense. The story or parts of it may not sound believable. If you suspect a youngster is lying, ask the youngster to repeat what he just told you. Truthful stories told twice in a row will generally be the same, but stories that contain lies may change dramatically or contain accounts that cannot both be true.

3. Decide whether the youngster's story sounds rehearsed or spontaneous. Kids who are telling the truth will usually tell it "off the cuff"(i.e., the story will sound like a fresh recounting of an actual event). A lie, on the other hand, may sound stilted or rehearsed. Some kids may even repeat the exact same phrases when telling a rehearsed story the second time.

4. Watch your youngster's body language. A youngster who is lying is more likely to appear nervous, defensive or scared. Look for hunched shoulders, a stiff body or face, repeatedly touching the nose or mouth and avoiding eye contact. While some kids are anxious when speaking to grown-ups no matter what they say, kids who can speak comfortably to adults normally, but who are nervous when telling a particular story, may be lying.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book


  1. Vance is only 4......he doesnt lie.....but he will tell you what you want to hear....

  2. Thank you Thank you Thank you for this blog.

  3. My son is almost ten and never lies. He is brutally honest and does misinterpret situations though sometimes which could look like lying to someone who doesn't know him well.

  4. My son is 11 and does this all the time. I can tell the difference between lying and wishful thinking. It's something I struggle with from him. His peers don't understand him like I do and this is damaging relationships he could be forming. No one in our neighborhood wants to play with him because of this and his extreme reactions to things. It breaks my heart. I gently try to tell him but I don't want to make him feel self conscious. He'd rather play with the way younger kids, then he can be carefree.

  5. We have long had struggles with our son's (now 14) lying. He was recently diagnosed with Aspergers, and this article is really helpful.

  6. This article answered so many nagging questions for me. It explains my almost 10-yr-old's behavior to a T. Thank you so much.

  7. His version of the truth often leaves out perspective and all of the facts.

  8. my older two aspies are very straight forward truth tellers, they say it as they see it... And if someone is hurt well they shouldnt be offended by the truth, my younger one tells me what i want to hear so he doesnt have to be in trouble, not exactly a lie, but not the whole truth...

  9. I am just finding out my children might be autistic, but have speculated it for years now. My oldest doesn't lie much at all, and doesn't even like it when others do it. My daughter, who is the middle child lies all the time, and seems impervious that she's even doing it. Where when my youngest does it, he often knows he's doing it, but doesn't care.

  10. My son is 17 and always lies and fabricates stories. Yes this article does explain it but I can get him to stop.

  11. My son is 17 and I have questioned for years about my son having autisim . My aunt was the first person who brought it to my attention that there could be a possibility of it . No matter how much I disipline my child he still does the samething over that he just got in trouble for . I have just been recently taking him to see a neuro physcologist in hopes of getting a correct diagnosis for him . I sat here and read your blog and it helps to know that I may be able to help my son get some kind of normal back in his life . Right now he is classified as a " lier " and " trouble maker " because no one understands him .

  12. My godson convinced himself that the Disney Electrical Light Parade was coming down our street. He had the music ready on his laptop, had me stand in line...and he was really looking down the street like it was going to come! Usually when he is spinning a yarn for me I can give him a look and a smile and say "This is what you wish would happen..." but on this one I couldn't convince him that parade wasn't coming! He was recently diagnosed PDD-NOS at age 13. I think it is closer to Asperger's..does this sound like what you are talking about or is it a little beyond that?

  13. Born in 1981. Neither of my parents had ever heard of Aspergers. I was beaten often for lying. What I eventually discovered were all the subtle nuances of lying.
    I grew up being told by every adult I met never to tell a lie...especially not to any of them. Yet every single one of those adults told lies before my eyes...sometimes in the very next sentence they spoke.
    Eventually I found patterns in those lies. For someone whose first language was ROM BASIC(as opposed to a non-machine language), what for many is the simple task of posting to a blog somewhere is for me an incredibly involved, yet detached and compartmentalized process. I've had to memorize the shape of every word I know. Sometimes those shapes have colors if they are like numbers....So many times when I told people what I saw, I was treated like everyone knew I was just a liar. To this day, no one understands when I tell them I can fix things because I can see how they work. Even when I assure them this happens with the help of the eyes, but still works when they are closed. It's not just a visual thing.
    I've heard many attempts to describe extra spacial dimensions....Tesseracts are interesting...but no one really could describe it in a way I could understand; or at least feel I could understand.
    It is this same kind of problem describing in any way I know, how my world is assembled. I remember watching a movie once called, "Interview with a Vampire." (Based upon a MUCH better book) In it, there is a scene where the elder of two vampires is describing to the other, newly-turned, the experience of the night with "vampire eyes." Without the sinister predatory tinge, the Idea struck me well. "Same world=Different World" Altered: perception.
    Anyway, all that was just to say it is not with regret for things past but acknowledgement of this page and gratitude for it, when I tell you; "Thanks" for posting it.
    It is an occasional fun exercise to ponder what my life would have been like had more people understood me even a little. Not to say none did; there were some few.
    Anyway: Thank you.

  14. This sounds like my son to a T. My question is how do I discipline him when I know he is lying. I will see him do something and he will swear he didn't do it, tears and all. But I know he did it. for example hitting his brother.

  15. Very simple: Your son is not lying. You must try to see things from HIS perspective, and not your own. There is NOTHING you "know" about what your son perceives or in what way. Nothing at all. Remember that.

  16. Very simple: Your son is not lying. You must try to see things from HIS perspective, and not your own. There is NOTHING you "know" about what your son perceives or in what way. Nothing at all. Remember that.
    As in this example, your son may be the victim of multiple personality disorder, may be under some perceived threat you know nothing about, some form of have NO IDEA what is actually going on.
    I recommend you approach this situation with that in mind.
    If you are fighting the urge to become defensive here, that is the most sure and certain indication that you need to learn what is and is not within your authority or purview. Your child, yes. But it is HIS world, vision, hearing, brain, etc.
    Like it or not, you must admit that and work within the framework it provides.

  17. I think I might be on the spectrum, and as a youngster, I was prone to wishful thinking. There was one time when I told my teacher I had ten sisters, and that was only because I WANTED ten sisters. Now I'm pretty honest, but I don't really talk much, so I don't think it matters.

  18. I have a 21 year old Aspie. In this youth he never lied but in the last several years he has taken up lying and making promises that he doesn’t keep almost like a hobby. I have read the article in this blog and most of the responses. I would disagree on not chastising for bad behaviour, such as lying, as that creates an environment where the Aspie knows he can get away with no real recourse for his/her actions and in fact may well foster a foundation for more lies. What the blog article misses entirely is that in REAL life, lying is not tolerated by the neurotypical world including future employers, friends or relationships. In my opinion, the SOONER an Aspie understands cause n effect, the sooner they will be able to be groomed for the REAL world.

  19. I have 2 one is extremely honest even if it gets then in trouble. The other is 22 and is dangerous. It breaks me as they were the most wonderful kind hearted person and now scarey. Even if I show them the proof they still don't see it in their eyes and others now use them a d convince them of their lies to get them out of trouble and them into trouble. Sadly let down by services and did not ge the help they needed.

  20. Sorry but a lying child is a lying child, ASD or otherwise. Unless that child is currently experiencing a full-on psychotic break with reality, they know when they have (and have not) hit their brother. They are simply lying to protect themselves.

    How a parent reacts to that lie is the only variable.

    Most parents want their child to become an honorable member of society, which, liars are NOT. Sadly, most ASD parents are afraid to discipline an ASD child so, the lying never ends.

    Parents, you do your children no favors by failing to discipline liars. Others have mentioned the obvious consequence faced by undisciplined children: peer rejection.

    Do your job parents. D0 your lying children a favor and teach them to not lie.