How To Lessen Power Struggles: Tips for Parents of Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“I have a 12 year old boy with high functioning autism …we just got the news 2 weeks ago after many years of …'oh it’s this', 'oh maybe this' …so now we're at autism. We are at our breaking point with him. So here goes... 

He is very defiant and out of control …he cusses a lot and does inappropriate things …like tonight he peed in a soda can and said his brother did it. When I cleaned his bathroom, he had written ‘f*** you’ on the wall. He has no respect for anything or anyone. He follows NO rules and we can’t get him to do anything. I don’t know what to do or where to go to get help! Where do we even start?”

Defiance is a strange animal for sure. What if I told you that your son isn’t trying to be a pain in the ass, but rather using some of these disturbing behaviors as a coping mechanism?

1- Your first step is to investigate and try to discover your son’s underlying insecurities and vulnerabilities. His oppositional behavior starts with feeling insecure. High-functioning autism comes with a host of symptoms, and often times a child’s only response in dealing with the associated challenges is to act-out. Why? It’s very likely that he feels he has little control over his circumstances in life. Defiance is a way for him to have at least some control over his environment.

2- The second step would be for you to regain your son’s trust and confidence, and somehow slip under his defiance so that you can offer him what he needs. His “misbehavior” is the result of an unmet need (usually the need to have some control). Investigate and try to figure out what he REALLY needs. No child finds joy in upsetting everyone in the house. He knows his behavior is causing conflict (and to be at odds with parents - day in and day out - is also a self-esteem breaker).

If you have had ongoing power struggles with him, he may be at a place where he does not trust you completely. He may not be sure whether your attempts to soothe will be comforting or upsetting. He may be used to getting yelled at. As a result, he can trust only himself. Convince your son that you have his best interest at heart and that you want to provide him with what he needs. This isn’t about punishment, it’s about meeting his needs. And yes, sometimes a parental correction for misbehavior or a consequence for a poor choice meets one of his needs.

3- Put yourself in your child’s shoes. The oppositional child, with his ongoing need to be the boss and his chronic power struggles with you, does indeed contribute to problems in the parent-child relationship. However, it’s crucial to understand that children on the autism spectrum are very prone to being overwhelmed and overloaded due to sensory sensitivities, executive function challenges, social skills deficits, and mind-blindness (just to name a few).

4- Your son likely uses bossiness and defiance as a coping strategy to feel secure. To protect himself, he shuts out part of the world, including you at times. Having said this, your next step would be to reframe your child’s defiance. In other words, instead of a viewing it as willful misconduct, begin to view it as a coping strategy to have some control in his life.

5- Lastly, you will need to set some firm limits. Being sympathetic doesn’t mean always giving your son what he wants or allowing him to be hurtful or rude to others. Gentle limits coupled with empathy and flexibility will gradually help your son be less critical of you and himself.

In a nutshell, one of his major needs is most likely the need to control. You want him to do one thing – he may want to do the exact opposite. Thus, your main mission should be to find ways that he can feel he has some control in his life without acting-out.

For starters, put him in charge of doing some things that would be age-appropriate (e.g., planning a meal, doing a particular chore, suggesting a different route to the Mall, what TV show the family will watch, what place the family will visit on the next family outing, etc.).

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