Addressing the Root Causes of Disobedience in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“How can I get my 9 y.o. son (high functioning autistic ) to obey and do as he's told? He won't do his homework and refuses to clean his room. He is defiant and talks back. When we try to discuss these problems with him in a peaceful, mature manner, he usually ends up getting angry and yells at us. And with the recent start of summer school, things have gotten much worse. What are we doing wrong?”

Unfortunately, disobedience is an issue more common in High-Functioning Autism (HFA) than in the general population. It can occur for numerous reasons. For example, anxiety, low-frustration tolerance, sensory sensitivities, social skills deficits, difficulty understanding emotions and their impact on others, when rituals can’t get accomplished, when the youngster's need for order or symmetry can’t be met… just to name a few. Thus, it’s important to understand that in many cases, the child’s oppositional behavior may be a symptom of some underlying issue related to his or her disorder.

Children on the autism spectrum possess a unique set of attitudes and behaviors related to their disorder that may result in the appearance of willful misbehavior. For example:
  • They tend to be physically and socially awkward, which makes them a frequent target of school bullies.
  • They suffer from “mindblindness,” which means they have difficulty understanding the emotions others are trying to convey through facial expressions and body language. Mindblindness often gives parents the impression that their HFA child is insensitive, selfish and uncaring.
  • They may have other issues like ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
  • They may have anxiety about a current or upcoming event (e.g., the start of school).
  • They may fixate on their own interests and ignore the interests and opinions of others.
  • They may become so obsessed with their particular areas of interest that they get upset and angry when something or someone interrupts their schedule or activity.
  • They may be unable to resist giving in to their obsessions and compulsions.
  • They may be reluctant to participate in an activity they can’t do perfectly or an activity that is difficult.
  • They have trouble expressing their own emotions and understanding the feelings of others. 
  • They have difficulty understanding rules of society.
  • They have difficulty transitioning to another activity (this is especially hard if the current activity is not finished).
  • They don’t understand social cues.
  • They don’t understand implied directions.
  • They don’t know how to “read between the lines.”
  • They don’t “take in” what is going on around them.
  • They can’t fully appreciate what impact their behaviors have on others.
  • They can be extremely sensitive to loud noise, strong smells and bright lights. This can be a challenge in relationships as they may be limited in where they can go on, how well they can tolerate the environment, and how receptive they are to instruction from parents and teachers.
  • The parent or teacher changes a circumstance or rule that has been established.
  • Social conventions are a confusing maze for these “special needs” kids, resulting in an inability to tolerate the little frustrating things that come up throughout the day.
  • Low self-esteem caused by being rejected and outcast by peers often makes these kids even more susceptible to “acting-out” behaviors at home and school.
  • Due to trouble handling changes in routine, a simple variation in schedules may be enough to cause a meltdown.
  • Because they struggle to interpret figures of speech and tones of voice that “typical” kids naturally pick up on, they may have difficulty engaging in a two-way conversation.
Any or all of these triggers can result in certain behavioral patterns that “look like” disobedience (e.g., arguing, tantrums, refusing to listen, etc.). However, their responses to these triggers often have more to do with anxiety and rigidity than their need to defy authority.

So, what can parents do to help their HFA child to cope better? Do some investigation and create a plan:

The Investigation— 

1. Keep a journal (or if it is a frequently occurring behavior, keep a chart) for noting every incidence of the targeted behavior (e.g., the child getting angry when asked to stop playing video games and start doing homework).

2. Include the time of day the behavior occurred.

3. Think of what might have happened directly before the behavior, and also earlier in the day.

4. Think, too, of what happened during and directly after the behavior, and whether it offered your child any reward (even negative attention can be rewarding if the alternative is no attention at all).

5. Ask yourself the following questions. Does the behavior tend to:
  • occur when things are very noisy or busy?
  • occur when something happens - or doesn't happen?
  • occur when routine is disrupted?
  • occur in anticipation of something happening?
  • occur during transitions?
  • occur after a certain event?
  • be more frequent during a certain time of day?

6. Keep track over the course of a few weeks and look for patterns.

7. Take the data from your journal or chart (e.g., patterns you've discovered, observations on environments, etc.) and see if you can figure out what's behind the behavior. For example:
  • Maybe your child acts-out because “being good” gets him or her no attention.
  • Maybe your child explodes over something inconsequential because he has used up all his patience weathering frustrations earlier in the day.
  • Maybe your child begs for punishment because going to her room feels safer than dealing with a challenging situation.
  • Maybe your child balks at math when he or she sees too many problems on the page.

8. Once you have a working theory, make some changes in your youngster's environment to make it easier for him or her to behave appropriately. For example:
  • Recognize situations your child feels challenged by, and offer an alternative between compliance and disobedience.
  • Instead of being happy that your child seems to be handling frustrating situations, provide support earlier in the day so that his patience will hold out longer.
  • If your child’s worksheet has too many problems, fold it to expose only a row at a time, or cut a hole in a piece of paper and use it as a window to show only one or two problems at once.
  • Give your child lots of attention when she is being good - and none at all for bad behavior (other than just a quick and emotionless timeout).

 ==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder
You may not always guess right the first time, and not every change you try will work. Effective parents will have a big bag of tricks they can keep digging into until they find the one that works that day, that hour, that minute. But analyzing behavior and strategizing solutions will help you feel more in control, and your youngster will feel safer and more secure. This alone often cuts down on a lot of “misbehavior.”

The Plan—

The basic idea in developing a behavior-management plan for an HFA youngster is to try many different strategies and find the management techniques that work best for him or her. This is an ongoing process. As working strategies are identified, they can be added to the plan and used when the child starts to get upset.

Some kids refer to their behavior-management plans as their “toolbox” and the specific strategies they use to control their behavior and emotions as their “tools.” This analogy may be very helpful. You can take this even further by creating a physical box for your child to put the strategies in (written on pieces of paper). And you could be really creative and have the pieces of paper shaped like various tools.

Again, it’s important to identify the specific behavior-management strategies that work best for your child. These strategies should be put down in a formal plan for referral when he or she encounters an aggravating event. It is also important to explore how different techniques may be used at different times.

Referring back to the toolbox, a screwdriver can be very useful, but not for pounding in nails. Application: An HFA youngster may feel better after running around in the yard, but this may not be possible when he or she is getting upset about something in the classroom. Strategies need to be in place to handle the different situations that may arise.

Meltdowns and the 9 Temperaments of Children with Asperger's and HFA

A meltdown appears to most parents as a tantrum. However, a meltdown has more to do with the child's temperament, whereas a tantrum has more to do with the child's anger at not getting his or her way.

There are nine different temperaments in children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism (HFA):

1. Poor Adaptability: This shows itself when Asperger's and HFA children resist, shut down, and become passive-aggressive when asked to change activities. Change in routine is very difficult for kids on the spectrum.

2. Negative Persistent: This is seen when the Asperger's or HFA youngster seems stuck in his or her whining and complaining. This occurs because he or she hasn't learned any other way to deal with frustration yet.

3. Negative Mood: This is found when Asperger's and HFA children appear lethargic, sad and lack the energy to perform a task.

4. Low-Sensory Threshold: This is evident when the youngster complains about tight clothes and people staring and refuses to be touched by others, for example.

5. Irregular: This moves the youngster to escape the source of stress by needing to eat, drink, sleep, or use the bathroom at irregular times when he or she does not really have the need.

6. Initial Withdrawal: This is found when Asperger's and HFA children get clingy, shy, and unresponsive in new situations and around unfamiliar people.

7. Hyperactive: This predisposes the youngster to respond with fine- or gross-motor activity.

8. High-Intensity Level: This moves the youngster to yell, scream, or hit hard when feeling threatened.

9. Distracted: This predisposes the youngster to pay more attention to his or her surroundings than to the parent.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot parents can do when a meltdown occurs in a child on the autism spectrum. The best thing they can do is to train themselves to recognize a meltdown before it happens and take steps to avoid it. This task is made much easier when parents identify their child's predominant temperament. 

Relationship Skills for Couples Affected by Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Rebuilding Self-Esteem in Discouraged ASD Teens: Tips for Parents

“Dustin, my son with high functioning autism, recently turned 13. He started back to school this week (8th grade) and we are already having some issues. He still has a hard time engaging with other classmates, his personal hygiene is lacking (e.g. hates to shower or comb his hair), and he’s simply not interested in the current fads or topics of conversation among his peer-group. Now he tells us that he’s being teased by a few kids in his class. Last school year, he 'failed' socially and became completely ostracized from his peer-group and felt a sense of general isolation from everybody. It appears that we are going to have a repeat performance of these issues again this time around. He mostly just stays to himself (playing his digital piano and video games in his room). How can I help my son in this situation? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.”

Due to the fact that the adolescent with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) tends to be a loner, develops odd mannerisms, and has poor people skills in general, he can be shunned from the peer-group and be the focus of teasing, thus resulting in low self-esteem – and even depression.

Here are some symptoms to look for in your HFA son’s behavior when he is “failing” socially:
  • Frequent stomach aches, headaches, etc.
  • Appears depressed
  • Preference for isolation at home or school 
  • Poor academic performance
  • Starts refusing to go to school or skips classes
  • Increase in anger and frustration
  • Disengagement from peers
  • Conflicts at school with peers or teachers

Young people on the autism spectrum possess certain traits - and face certain obstacles - that “typical” adolescents don’t. For example, they: 
(a) don’t understand the importance of eye contact – and may avoid it altogether; 
(b) have trouble understanding jokes or sarcasm; 
(c) seem insensitive or look unemotional, but often they just don't know how to express how they're feeling; 
(d) don’t understand socially acceptable ways to express frustration and may become aggressive or throw tantrums; 
(e) feel "sensory overload" (e.g., have heightened senses that can make noises seem louder and more startling); 
(f) are socially awkward since they have difficulty processing social cues (e.g., body language, sarcasm, humor, figurative language, emotional responses, facial expressions); 
(g) have trouble coping with change and may not react well to changes in routine; and 
(h) prefer to be alone and may not show an interest in making friends.

Your son, Dustin, needs to decide for himself when he will work on his poor people skills. I’m sure it’s tough for you to sit back and watch him struggle in the social arena, but you should try to let things play out on their own time. To charge-in and assert that Dustin “needs to work harder on developing some friendship skills” will only add to his low self-esteem and sense of being an “odd ball.”

==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Possibly, your son is simply not in a head-space where he is ready to make changes (but when he gets older, he may start to feel differently). Some of the reasons why Dustin may not be up for addressing his social skills deficits may include the following:
  • He may be particularly put-off about the idea of accepting help or criticism from you, the parent
  • He may not think there is any hope of improving
  • He may not see himself as awkward, just different
  • He may realize he has some things he needs to work on, but doesn't feel they are a priority at the moment
  • He may recognize he has some social problems, but is ashamed of them
  • He may be perfectly content to stay at home all the time and play video games
  • His lack of social skills may not have cost him enough yet (e.g., the teenager who doesn't need a lot of friends and who is content to spend his free time on the computer is not losing much by being ostracized from the peer-group)

In any event, here are a few ideas that you can use to help your HFA son deal with his social skills deficits:

1. While Dustin may have some real social weaknesses, in other ways, he may be different from the norm in a way that is perfectly valid. Those differences may be tied to social skills deficits, but you need to distinguish between true deficits and normal variations in personality. For instance, there's nothing wrong with being a bit reserved, being uncomfortable in certain social situations, having a unique hobby, having an odd sense of humor, or preferring to spend time alone. Thus, it would be helpful to not come across like you are rejecting Dustin’s core self.

2. Try to avoid feeling disappointed in your son. Maybe you were somewhat popular in school and can't really understand how Dustin seems to be having the opposite experience you did. Maybe you always hoped he would be a great saxophone player or football player, and you can't help but roll your eyes when he spends all Sunday afternoon playing “childish” video games in his bedroom (i.e., games that much younger children might play).

3. Try not to get angry with your son for not realizing he has a problem, or not wanting to do anything about it. True, the problem seems so obvious to you, but Dustin probably doesn’t see things the same way. For instance, he may tell you that it is impossible for him to make friends. His logic and explanations may not make sense to you, but he still seems to believe them.

4. Point your son to some resources (e.g., books, videos, CDs, etc.) that discuss self-help strategies for people looking to develop interpersonal skills.

5. Don’t feel that you have “failed” somehow as a parent because your “special needs” teenager is awkward, or because you didn't step in earlier. You may be prone to feeling guilty or blaming yourself if your son is going through a tough time. The fact is that most HFA adolescents are simply emotionally immature compared to their “typical” peers. After all, they have a “developmental disorder.”

6. Dustin may fare best with one or two close friends with whom he can practice teen social skills and "adult" behaviors. Even one relatively close relationship can make the difference between a depressed, awkward teen -- and one who is beginning to learn valuable social skills with a select few others.

7. It takes time for adolescents on the autism spectrum to improve their social skills. If your son does start working through his issues, don't feel like he is dragging his feet or not working hard enough if he doesn't transform over a period of a few months. In addition, give him space to change at his own pace. Maybe he will be eager about making some changes for a few months, but then get distracted by other things for a while.

8. Don't make your son feel monitored, or that your approval is connected to his rate of progress. For instance, you go to a family cookout and Dustin doesn’t feel like mingling with other family members, but you watch him to see if his ability to socialize has improved. Give Dustin the impression that you accept him for who he is – unconditionally! Of course, you will be delighted for him and share in his success if he makes some positive changes. But if he doesn't, you're O.K. with that too.

==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder 

9. If you were socially awkward as a teenager, some of your own baggage may come up as you witness your son struggling. You may frantically want to help him avoid some of the social blunders you made. But, he will need to learn from his own mistakes rather than from yours.

10. If you have already tried to help your son with his social awkwardness, but he shot you down, try to avoid feeling slighted or resentful. Don’t take it personally. He will take a hard look at himself and the changes that may need to happen when the timing is right.

11. If there is a relative or family friend your son may be more open to talking to, mention that person’s name. For example, maybe he will be more open to chatting with his uncle who he looks up to.

12. Pick a moment when you have time to talk and your son is in a decent mood. Tactfully mention that you've noticed that he seems to be having some trouble with __________ (fill in the blank with the problem in question), and that if there is anything you can do to help, you are there for him. He may deny that there is a problem or want the conversation to be over. But even if he gives that response, you can still lay out some options for him.

13. Try to engage your son in an activity or program where there are adult mentors to help him increase his self-esteem and build self-confidence. Research reveals that having just one activity in a teen’s life where he feels successful will result in a higher sense of self-esteem and a greater ability to negotiate a variety of social situations.

14. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling sorry for your son. It's only natural that you want to make his pain go away, but that attitude often results in over-protective parenting that tends to make a bad problem worse (e.g., doing too much for your son to the point where he never learns to do things for himself).

15. Young people on the autism spectrum need extra time to learn and practice adult life-skills, because their “emotional age” is much younger than their “chronological age.” In other words, your son is 13-years-old chronologically, but emotionally, he is probably more like a 9-year-old. So, the earlier you begin helping out in the area of social skills training – the better!

Children with HFA eventually go through adolescence on their way toward becoming strong, focused adults -- regardless of the misinformation you may have been fed. While adolescence is a difficult time for all teenagers, it can easily be much worse for those dealing with an autism spectrum disorder. However, with the right education and support, most HFA adolescents go on to graduate from high school.


As the years go by, are you seeing your HFA or AS child rapidly becoming reduced to a person who is surviving on: anger, being a mistake, depression, hate, isolation, low self-esteem, resentment, sadness and self-hate. Have you heard your  teenager say things like: I'm a mistake. I'm dumb. I'm useless. I hate myself. I wish I was dead. What is wrong with me? Why was I born? If so, then alarm bells should be going off. You know changes need to happen! Low self-esteem and behavioral problems go hand-in-hand! 

==> CLICK HERE for help on the matter...


•    Anonymous said… I have a 12 year son with HF autism , it has been so difficult to have conversation the past year.
•    Anonymous said… I think online school is the best option. Grooming is tough but my son is Ten and we use a reward system that includes play dates with friends. We also have a support group of 5 boys that also have Asperger's. We get together once a month. It's great to have parents to talk to about the issues that come up. My advice look for local support. Ask him what you can do to help him with his hygiene. Look into online school. Lastly find a career option that he is already obsessed with. Start classes in that. My son is obsessed with video games and he spent the summer in coding camps. You can do this dig deep they need our help!
•    Anonymous said… I wish there were more social groups for kids with special needs to get together. The school tries to offer social skills but it really is no contender for real life relations.
•    Anonymous said… My 15 YO son started 10th grade last week. We moved and changed school districts over the summer and he has decided that he wants to "reinvent himself". I am still having to remind him of showers/deodorant/shave/etc, but it is not he fight it has been in the past. He is conscientious of his clothing and has even shown interest in keeping his backpack more organized. I know it has only been 2 days but I consider it a step in the right direction. I think it helps that he is only doing 3 classes at the high school and then has an hour and a half break before going to 2 classes at the tech school for engineering. He says those are "his people". He came home Friday and a girl at the tech school came up and asked to sit w him during lunch. They talked for a long time before they both agreed that they should say their names and introduce themselves. He was so stimmy and excited when he got home. He said they both laughed when they were talking about how awkward they each were. He got invited into a group text about a class project. It all seems so simple but very few understand how big of a deal this is. Last year, he spent a ton of time in his resource classroom. That was his safe space. I think it gave him some confidence to be around other students like him. I also think that he is simply just ready this year. He has aged a bit and is talking about getting a job. It isn't that has happened in the past by trying to force it, so I am just going with it. He is just finally ready and has loads of resources and copying skills to help him along the way. I hope this gives you a bit of hope that it can get may be on his schedule but that is ok.
•    Anonymous said… my son became suicidal because of school so I took him out and quit my job. we are poor, but he is alive. I do not think children with autism should be forced to conform to neurotypical environments. it becomes a form of child abuse. I am also aware that many parents have no choice, but find an alternative to school for the child's sake. think about it this way, how would you feel being forced to spend all day in an environment where everyone speaks a different language than you, but you were told to Buck up and blend in or bullied. you would leave right? learning the new language would help, but that is like asking a blind person to learn to see so that everyone else feels better when they are around.
•    Anonymous said… Same here....doing home school....showering clothing choices ect...starting high school the diningroom
•    Anonymous said… School. Ugh!
•    Anonymous said… So hard. I engage with my son as much as I can, fortunate enough to be self employed and live close to school so pop in at morning tea and lunch times to check in
He's usually by himself but chooses too. We have family friends whose children also attend and they come up to me to say hi and whether they've hung out with him which is amazing and nice. I dont do it every day, maybe once or twice a week . Really helps keep him focused and I can deal/ chat with teachers anytime too. Communication and participation are vital i think
•    Anonymous said… This is what I am totally afraid of this year. It's going to be a tough one.
•    Anonymous said… This might sound INSANE to other people but the best I have done for my son is find a church with a good kids program. Generally the children in church are just taught to accept differences. They work out the differences easily and don't just toss other kids to the side.... hang in there mama you are doing amazing.
•    Anonymous said… Very similar situation, with a daughter (gr 7). I've got no advice, I'm sorry. But am interested in the advice .
*    Rita said... Acknowledge to yourself and your son that he is wired differently from most people. Stop expecting him to behave and react like them. The book "Look Me in the Eye" by John Elder Robison was helpful to my son at age 14. It showed him that Aspies also have some positive differences. Focusing on finding what your son is good at and promoting it will help with the self-esteem. We were fortunate to be able to send ours to computer camp to start learning some marketable skills beyond playing games.

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Symptoms of Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism that "Look Like" Misbehavior

As parents of children on the autism spectrum know, there are a multitude of symptoms: 
  • physical (e.g., fine and gross motor skills deficits, sensory sensitivities),
  • mental (e.g., attention difficulties),
  • emotional (e.g., shutdowns, meltdowns, obsessions),
  • and social (e.g., problems reading nonverbal language, difficulty understanding sarcasm).

However, sometimes it becomes extremely difficult for parents to differentiate between (a) behavior problems and (b) symptoms of the disorder that "look like" behavior problems. For example, the Asperger's or high-functioning autistic child who has an allergy or food sensitivity may be cranky during periods of the day. The child who finds it difficult to transition from one activity to the next may experience a meltdown. The child who has difficulty waiting his turn may throw a tantrum. Thus, we need to learn how to adjust our parenting strategies accordingly. 

Sometimes, a consequence for misbehavior is indeed warranted. Other times, the "misbehavior" may be the result of something that stresses the child to the point of acting-out his emotions, because he has not learned any other way to cope with the problem in question (yet).

Any of the following symptoms can result in a behavior pattern that "looks like" intentional misbehavior (or a disrespectful attitude):
  1. Allergies and food sensitivities
  2. Appearance of hearing problems (but hearing has been checked and is fine)
  3. Can become overwhelmed with too much verbal direction
  4. Causes injury to self (e.g., biting, banging head)
  5. Difficulty attending to some tasks
  6. Difficulty changing from one floor surface to another (e.g., carpet to wood, sidewalk to grass)
  7. Difficulty maintaining friendships
  8. Difficulty moving through a space (e.g., bumps into objects or people)
  9. Difficulty reading facial expressions and body language
  10. Difficulty sensing time (e.g., knowing how long 5 minutes is or 3 days or a month)
  11. Difficulty transferring skills from one area to another
  12. Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  13. Difficulty understanding directional terms (e.g., front, back, before, after) 
  14. Difficulty understanding group interactions
  15. Difficulty understanding jokes, figures of speech or sarcasm
  16. Difficulty understanding the rules of conversation
  17. Difficulty waiting for their turn (e.g., standing in line)
  18. Difficulty with fine motor activities (e.g., coloring, printing, using scissors, gluing)
  19. Difficulty with reading comprehension (e.g., can quote an answer, but unable to predict, summarize or find symbolism)
  20. Does not generally share observations or experiences with others
  21. Exceptionally high skills in some areas -- and very low in others
  22. Experience sensitivity - or lack of sensitivity - to sounds, textures, tastes, smells or light
  23. Extreme fear for no apparent reason
  24. Feels the need to fix or rearrange things
  25. Fine motor skills are developmentally behind peers (e.g., hand writing, tying shoes, using scissors, etc.)
  26. Gross motor skills are developmentally behind peers (e.g., riding a bike, skating, running)
  27. Has an intolerance to certain food textures, food colors, or the way food is presented on the plate (e.g., one food can’t touch another)
  28. Has an unusually high - or low - pain tolerance
  29. Inability to perceive potentially dangerous situations
  30. Irregular sleep patterns
  31. Makes honest, but inappropriate observations
  32. Makes verbal sounds while listening (i.e., echolalia)
  33. May need to be left alone to release tension and frustration
  34. Meltdowns
  35. Minimal acknowledgement of others
  36. Obsessions with objects, ideas or desires
  37. Odd or unnatural posture (e.g., rigid or floppy)
  38. Often experiences difficulty with loud or sudden sounds
  39. Overly trusting or unable to read the motives behinds peoples’ actions
  40. Perfectionism in certain areas
  41. Play is often repetitive
  42. Prefers to be alone, aloof or overly-friendly
  43. Resistance - or inability - to follow directions
  44. Resistance to being held or touched
  45. Responds to social interactions, but does not initiate them
  46. Ritualistic or compulsive behavior patterns (e.g., sniffing, licking, watching objects fall, flapping arms, spinning, rocking, humming, tapping, sucking, rubbing clothes)
  47. Seems unable to understand another’s feelings
  48. Seizure activity
  49. Short attention span for most lessons
  50. Speech is abnormally loud or quiet
  51. Talks excessively about one or two topics (e.g., dinosaurs, movies, etc.)
  52. Tends to either tune out - or break down - when being reprimanded
  53. Tends to get too close when speaking to someone (i.e., lack of personal space)
  54. Transitioning from one activity to another is difficult
  55. Unaware of/disinterested in what is going on around them
  56. Uses a person’s name excessively when speaking to them
  57. Usually resists change in their environment (e.g., people, places, objects)
  58. Verbal outbursts
  59. Very little or no eye contact

Your child's behavior is observable and measurable (i.e., any action that can be seen or heard). An effective method of examining his or her behavior is the ABC model:

A=Antecedent: The event occurring before a behavior (the event prompts a certain behavior)

B=Behavior:  Response to the events that can be seen or heard

C=Consequence: The event that follows the behavior, which effects whether the behavior will occur again (when the behavior is followed by an unpleasant consequence, it is less likely to reoccur; when the behavior is followed by a pleasant consequence, it is more likely to reoccur)

Let’s look at a simple example of how the ABC model works:

Your child is throwing a temper tantrum because he wants your attention.  If you respond to the tantrum (whether to comfort or scold), your child's misbehavior is being rewarded by your reaction (even though it’s a negative reaction).  Thus, in this situation, it would be best if you waited for the tantrum to stop, and then reward (i.e., reinforce) the calm behavior verbally (e.g., “I like how quiet you are being right now”).  In this way, your child learns that he can gain the your attention through more appropriate behavior.

When using the ABC model, always remember that your child is not an experiment, rather he is an individual capable of changing unwanted behavior - when offered the correct means to do so. It's your job to focus on the behavior you would like to increase or decrease. The more you learn about behavior modification techniques, the more tools you will possess to help shape and promote the behavior you want to see more often in your child.

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

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

"Best-of" Teaching Strategies for Students on the Autism Spectrum

We're all dealing with the coronavirus currently, but school will be back in session for most of the U.S. eventually. We have compiled a series of articles that will be especially helpful for teachers and home-schoolers who may have a student on the autism spectrum when classes resume.

Here, teachers will find nearly everything they need to know to help their "special needs" students be successful - both academically and socially.

"Best-of" Teaching Strategies for Students on the Autism Spectrum:

  1. Crucial Strategies for Teachers 
  2. Problems in Physical Education Classes 
  3. Anxiety-Based Absenteeism and School-Refusal
  4. Poor Academic Performance
  5. Effective Academic Accommodations
  6.  Behavior-Management in the Classroom 
  7. Capitalizing on Strengths 
  8. The Easily Discouraged Student
  9. Difficulty with Transitions
  10. Skills and Deficits
  11. Teaching Social Skills
  12. Understanding the Difficult Student
  13. Fact Sheet for Teachers
  14. How to Create an Effective Behavioral Intervention Plan 
  15. Behavioral Support
  16. Teaching the Anxious Student
  17. Teaching the Visually-Oriented Student
  18. Helping Students Cope with Recess 

More teaching strategies can be found here: The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Problem Behavior in Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

If you have tried talking, screaming, punishing, pleading, and negotiating - but your Asperger's or HFA teenager still walks all over you…

If you find yourself "walking on eggshells" around your child trying to avoid saying something that will set him off…

If you are tired of struggling with a person who is disrespectful, obnoxious, or even abusive toward you in your own home…

If you are frustrated and exhausted from constant arguing…

Being the Target of Teasing, Bullying and Peer-Rejection: Preparing Your ASD Child for the Inevitable

Many parents learn that their child with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), is being teased and/or bullied by one of the other students. In some cases, school officials don’t seem to address the problem adequately, thus the “special needs” child is left to fend for himself/herself.

Here’s a recent email from a very concerned mother on the matter:

“My 12-year-old son has been a target of bullying since the 4th grade. He is fully mainstreamed because he is academically "high functioning". I send him to school for the socialization. However, I am questioning that, because he is only learning that his peers are "not o.k.". He hates school, and is being treated for anxiety and depression. Bullying is constant and "below the radar", being mostly relational. I feel that I send him into a war zone each day. School officials try to address targeted incidents, but are mostly ineffective. Any suggestions on how I can help my son?”

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for kids with ASD to be the target of teasing, bullying, and peer-rejection in the school environment. This happens for several reasons, for example:
  • Low-frustration tolerance can lead to meltdowns for the autistic student, and children who “meltdown” in school may be viewed as “odd” by the other classmates
  • The child’s interests may be boring to his peers, so it’s hard for him to find other kids with similar interests
  • Due to having a low social IQ, the child may let things build up …then retaliate without an awareness of what the consequences will be
  • The child processes information at a different pace than expected, therefore, he may appear “space-out” or “disconnected” – then when he does respond, it is too late 
  • He appears different than his “typical” peers
  • The child may have motor difficulties, so participating in athletics is difficult – even games at recess may be a challenge
  • The child can’t tell the difference between good-natured teasing versus someone being mean, or he is oblivious to an act of bullying
  • He may not even be aware that he is being teased (i.e., he may assume that this is how he is supposed to be treated)
  • Because of built-up frustration, the child may over-react to most provocations, thus the bully knows he can always push the “special needs” student’s buttons at will
  • The child may have difficulty with multi-tasking and interpreting other’s intentions

In selecting the appropriate strategies to deal with the offender(s), you will need to determine the specific strengths and weaknesses your ASD son has socially. The best strategies will fit your son’s situation, age, skills, temperament, and the seriousness of the bullying incidents. 
==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Teaching your son the skills described below takes time and effort. The behaviors must be modeled and practiced if he is going to be successful. The payoffs are significant though. Payoffs include safety, self-confidence, resiliency, ability to handle difficult or frightening situations, and the ability to master and to change challenging situations.

Always teach more than one strategy to combat teasing and bullying so that your son always has a second one to try if the first doesn’t work out (3 to 5 well-mastered strategies from the list below works best).

How to help kids on the spectrum handle teasing, bullying, and peer-rejection:

1. Teach your son how to report bullying. Bullies can’t bully for long if they are getting caught. The beginning of getting a bully to stop has to start with an authority figure. So, each time someone bullies your son, he should tell a grown-up.

2. Ask your son to picture himself as a ball, and the words that the bully is saying are bouncing off -- or he can pretend that there is a shield or bubble around him so that the words can’t get through. Teach your son that he can refuse to listen to the insults, protecting himself with an imaginary bubble or an invisible protective shield. Some children can imagine themselves as a super-power figure that is safe from insults and mockery.

3. Teach your son by modeling “talking to yourself.” This is a silent “pep-talk” strategy. Help your son practice self-talk such as, “I don’t like this, but I can handle it” … “I don’t believe what this kid is saying about me” … “I have a lot of talents” …and so on. This strategy requires an ability to concentrate when under a lot of stress.

4. Have your son “buddy-up” for safety. Two or more friends standing at their lockers are less likely to be picked on than a child who is all alone. Remind your son to use the buddy system when on the school bus, in the bathroom, or wherever bullies may lurk.

5. “Reframing” is a technique that changes your son’s perception about the negative statement. He can turn the insult into a comment. For example, if your son is being teased about wearing glasses, he could say something like, “Thanks for noticing my glasses” … “That’s cool that you noticed me” …and so on.

6. “Positive thinking” is a technique for the youngster who is less reactive and feels okay about himself. Explain to your son that he has the power to choose how to act when someone is teasing or bullying. He can decide that it isn’t worth the trouble to get upset, or he can decide that there is no way that the bully is going to win by seeing him upset. Help your son see that he doesn’t have to let the other person have power. The person who has the power is the one who stays in control.
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

7. Teach your son to talk about something else to distract or divert the focus of the peer’s negative comments. Your son can make a short comment about a nearby game or activity, a class, or what is going to be served for lunch.

8. See if your son can make friends with one of the bigger guys in the school (some 8th graders, for example, may stand nearly 6 foot tall). Bullies are reluctant to go after someone who has backup. Bullies usually pick out the weakest student they can find, and there is strength in numbers. So, your son may be able to stop a bully by having a tall friend on hand most of the time.

9. Show your son how to use humor, laugh about the teasing, and make it playful. A witty one-liner can be enough to make the teaser stop. Laughing can turn a hurtful situation into a funny one. For example, your son could use clever comebacks like, “Thanks, I love compliments”… “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”… “Old clothes are in, didn’t you know?”… “You made my day” … “Tell me something I don’t already know” …and so on.

10. Teach your son to compliment the bully by saying something like, “Wow, you’re better than me, I’m still learning” … “You’re good at this, how about helping me?”…and so on.

11. Teach your son to agree with everything that the bully is saying. Say something like, “Yes that’s true”… “I see what you mean” … “Makes sense to me.”

12. “I feel” statements work best when the child uses it within earshot of a grown-up. If it is used when there is no help around, it can invite more teasing. Your son should practice checking to see that an adult is within earshot, making eye contact, speaking clearly, using a polite tone of voice, and saying, “When you ___ I feel ___ because ___ so please stop” (e.g., “When you keep calling me stupid, I feel sad, because I thought you were my friend …so please stop”).

13. Teach your son a script to say over and over until the teasing stops (because it’s no longer fun for the teaser). For example, “This is getting very boring” … “Stop it” … “Don’t you have anything else to do.” The script needs to be assertive.

14. Teach several relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing, counting backwards, thinking of a pleasant scene, etc.). Relaxation methods do not work in stressful situations unless they are practiced in situations that are not stressful. Practice with your son several times a day, making a game of the methods, or calling them “daily exercises.”

15. Help your ASD child to improve his self-esteem. Bullies usually pick on kids who have low self-esteem. They look for those who are weak, isolated, that feel alone, and have few friends. There is less chance of them being caught that way. If your son works on his self-esteem, he will be less of a target.

16. Teach your son to comment on what the teaser is doing (e.g., "You’re kicking my chair" … "You’re standing on my foot"). This requires an accompanying nonverbal gesture (e.g., raised eyebrows).

17. Teach your son the importance of showing no emotion during the incident. Anger and tears usually make teasing and bullying worse. Staying in control is very difficult for many children on the autism spectrum. It requires active and intense effort. Your son must have adequate emotional control to pull this off. For this technique to work, he needs to be careful not to look at -- or respond to -- the bully. It is important that the bully does not see that your son is upset or afraid. Control of emotions needs to be taught first. This takes lots of practice, especially for children who are emotionally reactive, timid or impulsive.

18. Teach your son to ask questions, which are designed to neutralize what is being said by the bully. For example, “Why are you so interesting in my glasses?” … “Why would you care that I didn’t comb my hair today?” … “Are you always a joker, or are you just making a special effort with me?” …and so on. An innocent expression works well with this strategy.

19. Practice assertive body language with your son. Find pictures in magazines in which the person looks powerless, and ones in which the models appear assertive. Point out body posture and facial expressions. Act-out assertive postures (e.g., standing tall, looking directly at the other person, tightening the jaw and arms, relaxing the rest of the body, etc.).

20. DO NOT confront the student who is doing the bullying. Why? Because: (a) your son may become friends with the bully next week (you know how children are – mortal enemies one minute, inseparable buddies the next), (b) the bully’s parents may view the situation much differently than you do, (c) it makes your son even more powerless (e.g., the teaser may say something like, “Your ‘mommy’ is trying to save you”), and (d) it makes it difficult for the kids to “make up.”

21. Make sure that your son understands that reporting something that is cruel or hurtful is not “tattling,” rather it’s “standing up for your rights.” If your son has issues around tattling, and the situation is not immediately dangerous, suggest that he warn the bully that he will tell if the bullying doesn’t stop. Once warned, it is more acceptable to tell.

22. Teach your son to leave assertively. This technique is for situations when the bully is in your son’s face. Teach your son to say things like, “I’m leaving” … “I have more important things to do” … “Go bother someone else” … “I’m out of here” … “See you later!” … “Leave me alone” … “I don’t have to listen to this” … “Quit bugging me” …and so on. Teach your son to use one of these statements, and then to walk away quickly. Be sure that your son understands that this technique may not work all the time. If it doesn’t work, a different technique needs to be used immediately. Thus, when practicing, teach several techniques at the same time.

23. Show your son how to confront the bully. “Confrontational” statements are designed to stop bullies in their tracks. For examples, “I didn’t do anything to you, why are you bugging me?” … “That’s not funny at all” … “I don’t like this” … “Could you please stop?” … “Cool it.” The nonverbal behavior used with this strategy is important. Practice standing tall, using direct eye-contact and setting a firm expression.

24. Help your son learn how to deal with whispers. Teach your son to ask, “Do you have something to say about me?” when peers are whispering and laughing. Assertive body language and an exaggerated facial expression works well here.

25. Just shrug. A quick technique is to shrug your shoulders and walk away.

==> Teaching Social-Skills and Emotion-Management to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

26. If your child admits to being bullied, take action. Tell him that you'll do everything in your power to help, for example: (a) find out how bullying is addressed in the school's curriculum, as well as how staff members are obligated to respond to known or suspected bullying; (b) instead of finding blame, ask for help to solve the bullying problem, keep notes on these meetings, and remember that it can take time for educators and administrators to investigate bullying in a fair and factual way; (c) start with the teacher who knows your child well, ask whether your child’s classroom behavior has changed or if there are any other warning signs, and consult a school dean, counselor or other school contact; and (d) write down the details (e.g., the date, who was involved, what specifically happened, etc.) and record the facts as objectively as possible.

27. Teach your child to “put on a brave face.” If your son lets the bullies know that he is afraid of them, it is like giving them power. If he gives them a little power, he will find that the bullying gets worse. So, he can put on a brave face, and never show his fear.

28. Help your son understand when it is dangerous to try to manage the bully (e.g., when the bully is older or much stronger, or when the bullying takes place in isolated areas with no one around).

29. You should not assume that your son’s teachers don't want to get the bullying problems in the school resolved. Most do! However, a wide range of need combined with limited resources often create the potential for conflict between what reasonably can be provided versus the parent wanting what she believes is "best" for her child. Do everything possible to establish a positive, partnership-based approach and team together with staff. Also, understand that the school’s Principal is a key player. You must have the loyalty, support, faith, and cooperation of the Principal in order to advocate effectively.

30. Help your child understand the difference between teasing, harassment and bullying. When teasing is excessive – it’s harassment. When harassment continues over time – it’s bullying.

31. You may have to simply remove the bait. If it's lunch money or gadgets that the school bully is after, you can help neutralize the situation by encouraging your son to pack a lunch or go to school gadget-free.

32. Another good strategy is to simply say, “So?!” …in response to teasing. This technique must be executed with appropriate nonverbal communication. Thus, it needs practice. The nonverbal gestures could include a quick smile, a slight tip of the head, or a slight shrug of the shoulder before walking away.

33. Simply avoiding the bully is an important strategy for some situations. Remind your son to go a different way, and to stay near other children or grown-ups. This is a safety strategy for teasing verging on bullying, and for the child who does not yet have the skills or confidence to use the strategies that he is learning.

The mental torment that autistic victims feel is genuine. But possibly because a lot of us have experienced some kind of schoolyard cruelty and lived to tell the tale, peer-harassment is still generally written off as a “soft” type of abuse - one that leaves no apparent injuries and that most victims simply overcome.

Dealing with teasing and bullying erodes a youngster's confidence. To help restore it, encourage your child to spend time with friends who have a positive influence. Provide a listening ear about problematic situations, but encourage your child to tell you about the good parts of his day as well. Make sure your child knows you believe in him and that you'll do what you can to address any bullying that occurs.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


Anonymous said... My 12 year old son goes to mainstream secondary school but it has an Autism unit attached to it where depending on ability, kids are either educated there full time or just access it at breaktimes and lunchtime to use the quiet areas or games consoles. He is high functioning so in mainstream for all his lessons and there were a few issues when he started, mainly with his sensory problems with noise and crowds. He now has passes to leave lessons a few minutes early to avoid the crowds and has his dinner early with other kids from the unit. It's not perfect but seems to working ok and he's made a few friends and doing very well academically. It would be great if there was some provision for kids with Aspergers to be taught together the same way other kids with special needs are as I'm sure they would do much better without all the noise and distractions.

Anonymous said... My daughter did too, but the things she used would get my son expelled (beating one kid bloody) and she is not oriented socially at all and could care less if kids liked her, so she basically told them to F off or laughed at their idiocy, but my son does care about what kids think and I have wondered how it looks for a social kid to deal with this.
Anonymous said... Some teachers schools need to be more aware of this us as parents of these children stand up for our kids as we are the only ones they trust ..everyone needs someone ...even if they take their frustration out on us ...just not fair x
Anonymous said... Sounds exactly like what goes on with my daughter. She is 15 now and was mainstreamed until this last school year, which was her 9th grade yr. That school yr. attended a private school and was considered to academically on point and beyond. She is also high functioning, but still has trouble socially and emotionally, due to the fact of all the teasing and bullying that went on in previous yrs. That being said...we are back to square one and headed to back to her public school with extra support from an outside agency. She is not thrilled with this idea, simply because she is worried about the other kids and experiencing the same problems. We have an advocate representing her. We as parents are praying for other children to be a little more mature by high school, but we all know that won't be the case for all students, or are we sending her into a war zone as well. Teachers, and school officials all need a better handle on how things go for HFA children who are in need of extra support to stay mainstreamed. Well, here we go 10th grade. Hoping and praying for a descent yr. for my daughter.
Anonymous said... We just pulled our son out and he will now go to a much smaller charter school.
Anonymous said... I also have been bullied like this as an adult in a professional environment. I had to go through multiple investigations when I first started my job. Then all went away, but I did have a mini breakdown and still hardly trust anyone because of it. I wish we could say to our kids "it gets better" but it doesn't always get better. My daughter has gotten better, but she is in a flexible job, so if she doesn't like the people she changes work. But I am not and so I have to endure this person (going on 20 years) and they never get in trouble for the lies they spread. NEVER. If I had money, I'd sue them for defamation.
Anonymous said... i feel the same, but I'm getting triggered all over the place because you can't really protect your kid. Trying to figure out the line of when to pull because I would absolutely pull if needed, but where is that line? I was also bullied by teachers and if that happened, I'd be pulling him right away, but it is harder to know when with kids.
Anonymous said... I was bullied mercilessly at school and even now, over 20 years since I graduated high school there are ramifications. Pull your child out. Enrol them elsewhere, get them into counselling where the counsellor understands that there is HFA at play here and work like hell on their self esteem. If another school is not an option, look for online schools or homeschooling. As for socialising, if you think about it, school socialisation is about teaching 10 and 11 year olds to socialise with 10-11 year olds, and 5yos with 5yos. In homeschooling where socialisation is often criticised, kids are taught to be social with all ages. They learn to speak with younger and older children, their peers in either learning or age and also the adults with whom they interact. Food for thought.
Anonymous said... I was bullied severely as a child. I've also been through other traumas. But the bullying had the most effect on my life. I'm almost 40 and it still affects me. Do whatever you have to do to protect your children. Sure wish someone had protected me.
Anonymous said... I'm lucky mine can stick up for himself. He also sticks up for his older NT brother  ;)
Anonymous said... My daughter experiences this everyday. We've taught her lots of strategies but she is very smart and gets incredibly frustrated that she's the one that always had to think about and change her behaviour and the ones in the wrong don't. There needs to be a greater focus on accountability on those in the wrong. They are the ones who need to change.
Anonymous said... my daughter was bullied in school and in college and now out of college the new trick is to contact the police and accuse her of plotting to attack people it always happens near christmas to spoil our holidays she is so anxious now she is under a psycologist
Anonymous said... My son was bullied verbally, isolated from peers, and ignored by teachers. He was constantly on the defensive and reached a breaking point. It was a horrible experience and as a parent one of my biggest regrets. Don't make him go and find an alternative.
Anonymous said... My son's school was awful, he was in kindergarden and got punched in the face on more than one occasion. I informed the school to watch him at break times and even gave them the names of the kids that were bullying him. The very day I warned them he got punched in the face again, he is homeschooled now.
Anonymous said... online school - all the academics none of the bullying - find other social outlets with like minded kids
Anonymous said... our sons school is so ignorant there still putting he lacks concentration, he is better in some lessons not in others and the classic my son needs to listen more and join in with making friends hes leaving soon I feel for others going to my sons school no hope
Anonymous said... Private schools don't know how to deal with this either, unfortunately. It infuriates me!
Anonymous said... Pvt and public need more education on children with Aspie.
Anonymous said... School will be starting soon. Oh the horror!
* Anonymous said... Public schools don't know how to deal with our children that are aspie's. He is going into 5th grade and last yr in elementary, last yr in public school also. Him and his twin will be homeschooled or pvt school. I won't tolerate any bullying at all. He eas bullied the beginning if 4th grade by a 120lb kid and he is 56lbs. Ummm ni thats wint happen again. The principal heard from us about that issue. If he is bullied and explodes cause he is tired of it, he won't get in trouble by me.

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Is your ASD child's "misbehavior" truly deliberate, willful, or manipulative?

Children with High-Functioning Autism often exhibit different forms of challenging behavior. But, are these behaviors willful or malicious? You may be surprised!

More articles for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…


Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...


Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…


Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…


Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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to read the full article...


Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...
A child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can have difficulty in school because, since he fits in so well, many adults may miss the fact that he has a diagnosis. When these children display symptoms of their disorder, they may be seen as defiant or disruptive.

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Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...