I didn’t expect to be asked this question as often as I have been.
It’s a tricky one to even ask. After all, autism really does affect children in extremely serious ways. And parents are often swamped by ignorant people accusing them of labelling their children to excuse their bad behaviour (which is a disgusting accusation to make, by the way). The words “autism” and “excuse” look so, so ugly together that I was reluctant even to write this article.
But it’s been a frequently asked question on Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook page (all links open in new windows), so here are my answers.
A few disclaimers first:
- Yes, I am entirely aware that autism has a severe impact on thousands and thousands of children, and that their struggles are very real. As someone who personally has Asperger Syndrome, and delivers frequent talks about growing up with the condition, and is a former primary school teacher, who’s also worked with both the ‘mild’ and ‘severe’ sides of special education, I’d have to be an idiot not to know this.
- No, I do not believe that parents ever get autism diagnoses as an excuse to justify their own laziness. In fact, I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who believes this whilst knowing anything about autism in general.
- You know your kids, and I don’t. Adapt the advice in this article in whatever way you see fit, in order to meet your own child’s needs accurately.
- Finally, if you rant in the comments about how dreadful I am to assume autism is ‘just an excuse’, I’ll correctly assume you didn’t bother to read beyond the title of this article.
This article is written for the kind of people who have asked me these kinds of questions:
My 6 nearly 7yo son with HF ASD and ADHD knows about his ‘conditions’. However lately he uses them as an excuse to him doing things I’ve asked him not to. Eg. We are at the beach and he went in water after I told him numerous times not to as its cold. And he told me ‘it’s just my autism’. What should we do? He can’t really use his conditions for excuses.
Son is 9, in 3rd grade (USA). Dad worries that diagnosis would be used as an excuse to not do things, etc. His sister did this ALL the time.
Or, slightly more complex:
My lad (who’s 9, year 5) is aspie and I’ve noticed recently that when he meets someone new he very quickly mentions that he is aspie and dyspraxic. That’s fine by me except that he says it apparently in response to feeling like he’s doing or saying something ‘weird’ (which can be just having trouble word finding). I’ve tried hard to impress on him that being aspie is never an excuse for bad behaviours and I’m lucky in that he’s a good lad. But I’m unsure whether he needs any reassurance or what I should say about this tendency of his to explain away quirks (since most people have quirks!). Is it a good strategy he’s created or not?
It’s a subject that may open a can of worms, but when you think about it there’s no point in making a can of anything unless you’re going to open it sooner or later. So here we go.
First things first, kids will be kids.
By their very nature, children push boundaries. They try to get away with things. They push their luck as far as they can get away with. And that’s not because they’re brats (you may have gathered that I have a pretty high opinion of children in general). It’s because it’s built into their instincts.
Think about it: without the desire to test their boundaries and see how far they can stretch their behaviour, humans would not have advanced the way they have done. Pushing our natural boundaries has allowed us to climb mountains, navigate oceans and walk on the moon. This natural drive to stretch ourselves is built in right from the start of our lives. It’s how we advance as a species.
Of course, the side effect is that children push their luck from a very early age. That’s why it’s important to set clear and consistent boundaries for young people at the same time as giving positive encouragement: to allow them to be their natural explorative selves, whilst making sure their behaviour doesn’t become a pitfall for them on the way.
So, is it ‘normal’ for autistic children to use their autism as an excuse? Well, children with two parents often say “Mummy said I could” to Daddy, or vice versa. Children at the far end of the garden often pretend they can’t hear you shouting “come inside”. Plenty of children start acting hyper after a fizzy drink because “I’ve had too much sugar!!”
And yes- children on the autism spectrum are no different. Offer them an excuse and they’ll kindly take it.
And for the record- if I’d found out about my Asperger’s when I was eight, I would definitely have used it as an excuse. For a while at least.
Then my parents would have enforced their expectations, and given me a stern talk about me making the right choices. Then I would have stopped.
None of this makes it ok for autism to be used as a get-out clause, obviously. But it does explain the motivation for children who do. Because that’s what people in general do- autistic or not, children or not!
The difference between a ‘reason’ and an ‘excuse’
I saw my first face-to-face example of autism being used as an excuse when I worked in a special school. A 17-year-old student (and quite a capable one) was finding something difficult in a maths lesson and knew it would take some effort to solve. When we encouraged her to knuckle down and give it her best, she casually said “nah, I can’t, I have autism”.
Now, if she had genuinely been struggling, that would have been different. If she were feeling anxious, that would absolutely have been different. But she said it in such a calm, dismissive tone that she was obviously trying to play a ‘get out of work free’ card.
To make it worse, she said it in a roomful of students who genuinely did struggle with maths because of their autism.
And those other students are the reason why it’s so important that autism isn’t casually waved around as an excuse. It trivialises the problem, and it’s unfair to those who can legitimately say that their autism makes them struggle. Those for whom autism is a reason, not an excuse.
The other part, of course, is the damage it does to the person saying it.
I knew a teenager from my youth club who was diagnosed with dyslexia, but it did not seem to affect his reading ability in any noticeable way. However, from the moment he got the diagnosis, whenever we asked him to do a Bible reading he would grin and say “no, it’s ok, I’m dyslexic.”
It was immediately clear that his attitude was a far bigger obstacle than his dyslexia had ever been.
Because that’s the danger with ‘get out of work free’ cards. If you’re unlucky, you might actually get out of doing the work.
So, when is autism a reason and when is it an excuse?
Well, you’ll know how to recognise it in your child far better than me. But here are a few pointers.
(If you disagree with some of these, that’s fine. They may not apply personally to your child. Your own examples may also match up with some of the mitigating bullet-points in the next section. But these points apply in a general sense.)
If a child hears what you say, ignores it and chooses to behave badly (especially if they were obviously in control of their choices at that moment), then says it was their autism acting up, they are usually using autism as an excuse.
If a child hears what you say but their impulses take over (and especially if they feel guilty after the event), their autism is a genuine reason.
If a child refuses to work in school because they don’t feel motivated, even when a teacher reminds them that completing work is an expectation of the whole class, and then raises their autism as a reason for not wanting to do the work, they are often using autism as an excuse. (See the example I gave above.)
If a child refuses to work in school because they are struggling with the environment, or they feel unable to engage with the work, and whole-class expectations have a history of not being accessible to them, their autism is a genuine reason.
Finally, if a child hits another child because they’re physically overwhelmed, or they don’t have the coping strategies to deal with the situation in a socially acceptable way, their autism is a genuine reason.
If a child hits another child simply because they’re annoyed with them, then says it was their autism, they are usually using autism as an excuse- although the real factors of this incident need serious attention.
After establishing whether autism is the excuse or the reason in each case (but bearing in mind it may be a bit of both!), the next question is how to deal with it.
If you are certain that their autism is playing the role of ‘excuse’, then it’s usually better to enforce the same disciplinary guidelines you usually would. If the consistency is there, the child will hopefully realise that reaching for excuses will not change the outcome of their actions.
That, and have a chat with them about choices- which I’ll discuss in a bit.
But if their autism is a genuine reason for struggling, approach the situation with compassion and allow yourself to be flexible. Yes, you want them to know that using autism as an excuse is unacceptable, but you never want them to avoid coming to you with genuine problems.
Anyway- parents and teachers are usually pretty clued up on when children are making excuses and when they’re genuinely struggling. But how do you make the children understand the difference?
Before my answer, a few things to bear in mind:
- Before reacting to a sentence that sounds like an excuse, the first thing to judge is how uncomfortable they feel with the situation at hand. Judge your reaction accordingly, because their feelings may be a factor in how well they express their reasons.
- For some children (or people in general who struggle with communication), referencing their autism may be a way of expressing how difficult they’re finding something. If, to them, ‘autism’ is synonymous with ‘struggling’, they may get the two mixed up.
- Sometimes they may not realise they are coming across as making excuses! In some cases they may honestly think that their autism is causing their actions. In those cases, give guidance rather than rebukes.
- Occasionally, if they are referencing their autism to other people, they may even be trying to teach the other person about their autism. Be particularly sensitive in reacting to that- as complicated as it is to strike a balance between raising awareness and communicating with others ‘appropriately’.
Ok, so that’s several of the exceptions covered.
But what if none of the above cases apply, and the child is clearly and blatantly playing the autism card to get away with substandard behaviour?
Some things we don’t get to choose. Other things, we do.
In primary teaching, there is a lot of emphasis on making young people aware of their choices. For example “you threw Tommy out of the window and that was bad” doesn’t always make them think in the right direction, whereas “you chose to throw Tommy out of the window, and that was the wrong decision to make” is more likely to make them think about their own role in making it happen.
(Of course, I may have said a stronger set of words if a child actually got defenestrated in my class, but you get my point.)
(And wow, did I really just find an opportunity to use ‘defenestrated’ in an article?)
With the above in mind, this is what I’d say to a child using their autism an excuse.
There are some things in life we don’t get to choose. Being autistic is one of them.
There are other things in life we do get to choose. Because we’re humans, and part of being human is making our own choices.
It’s important to understand the difference between the two. Don’t feel too bad about the things that are beyond your control, but don’t refuse responsibility for the things you can control.
We may not get to choose whether or not we’re on the autism spectrum, and some of us don’t always get to control our impulses (or need a lot of help to overcome them). But the moment we are able to call the shots, we get to decide who we are.
Everyone, autistic or not, has to take responsibility for their choices. It’s part of growing up to be the best person you can be.
I’d explain this using very specific examples, of course.
With the student I’d say “you don’t get to choose whether you find maths tricky, but you do get to choose whether you work hard at it.”
With the dyslexic lad I’d say “you don’t get to choose whether you struggle with reading, but you do get to choose how much you challenge yourself.
With the fictional kid I’d say “you don’t get to choose the stress levels of your environment, but you do get to choose whether to throw Tommy out the window.”
Make them understand what they can choose and what they can’t. The rest will follow easier after that. For some it may solve the problem straight away, and for others it at least teaches them an important life lesson and offers them a springboard for further learning.
Being honest, this was one of the trickier articles to write. Because very often there’s no clear-cut way to recognise a young person’s motivations for referencing their autism. Sometimes it’ll be for genuine reasons (even if only in their own mind), and sometimes it may be a sign of struggling to express themselves. And I make no claim to be able to recognise the difference in any child I don’t know personally.
But if you want a nice and easy bullet-point list of guidance tips, here it is.
- Like I said at the start, you know your kids and I don’t. Adapt the advice in this article in whatever way you see fit, in order to meet your own child’s needs accurately.
- All kids make excuses. Adults do too. Those on the autism spectrum are not immune to this.
- Before you do anything else, check how un/comfortable the child is when referencing their autism, and react appropriately.
- Try to work out their motivation for referencing their autism. It may not be what you think.
- Choices are everything. And even those who struggle with self-control will have opportunities to make choices for themselves. Guide the young person to distinguish between what they do choose and what they don’t. Help them to make the right choices, and the rest will follow.
All the best to you and your kids,
Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk-
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Book one can be found here:
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
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Can of worms: minnlawyer.com
And the incredible Bill Watterson, of course.