Weird question, isn’t it? It’s harder to tell than you would think!

Let me share what my husband and I have learned the hard way with a child with autism. These lessons apply to any child who’s on the spectrum or who has a related disability, such as nonverbal learning disorder or PPD-NOS. Hardly ever is a child with autism or related disability being deliberately disobedient. They’re literal and they LOVE rules. (In fact, they usually consider themselves the rule police and tell on everyone who’s not following the rules.) Most of time the problem is that we as parents misunderstand what is actually going on.

Here some steps to follow to discern if your child is actually being disobedient. (I’m sure you’ll discover more steps that apply to your family.)

1)    Are you asking them to do something or telling them to do something?
In English, it is not polite to order people around directly. So we are taught as children to “ask politely.” Think about how you are “telling” your child to do things that you think they are refusing to do. Are you asking politely or commanding politely? There’s a huge difference.

Stop and think a moment. Are you saying:

Would you mind sweeping the floor?
Would you grab that can for me?
Would you mind picking that up?
Can you help for me a second?
Do you mind waiting for a minute?

Of course, they’d mind. Any child would! (And most adults!) They’re involved in what they are doing or simply have no desire to help. (It’s human nature, and even more so with autism, ADD, and the like to prefer to do their favorite activity over helping you with a chore or such. Chores are… umm… chores, not “funs.”)

The child is simply truthfully answering the question you are asking. They are not disobeying; they are being literal. You aren’t telling them to do something; you’re asking them if they’d “mind” doing it or “care” to do it. A totally different kettle of fish. And frankly, yes, they’d mind. 🙂

So as a neurotypical or politely trained adult, you assume that they understand your question is actually a politely-worded command and are disobeying you. That makes you frustrated and convinced they’re being disobedient and rebellious. That’s not the case in these situations.

Such polite questions and hints don’t work with autism, ASD, PDD-NOS, and many other developmental disorders. You have to change how you would normally use a polite request and give a direct command, even though it goes against all our training in politeness. (I can’t tell you how many times I had to “correct” myself and say “Mommy didn’t mean that as a question. I’m politely telling you to do that.” And then had to rephrase my polite request into a command, which was obediently followed.)

So, instead of the traditional requests above, use a polite command:

Please sweep the floor.
Please grab that can for me.
Please pick that up.
Please help me for a second.
Please wait a minute.

2)    Did they do something you just told them not to?
Stop a moment and consider: Did they REALLY just do what you told them not to? Children with autism can’t think abstractly as neurotypical children can until they’re much older, if at all. So ask yourself, did they just do something that was just a bit different than what you said? Is it off by even one degree? If so, it’s probably the lack of abstract thinking that just bit you, not true disobedience.

For example, telling a child not to take a cookie is not telling them not to take two cookies. (Tell them not to take any cookies.) Telling a child not to try to catch a friend jumping off the diving board is not telling them not to have their friend jump off the diving board at all. (Explain that their friend cannot swim and doesn’t belong in the deep end and it is not safe to allow them to jump off the diving board at all. Don’t ask me how I know this one! Oh, wait…)

3)    Is your child actually trying to obey more than one rule at a time and stymied?
Make sure you haven’t set rules that collide in unexpected ways with another or ask the child to do something you’ve forbidden previously without supplying data and specifically changing the rule.

I once had to rescue my daughter who had been standing in one place, dripping wet from the pool, for half an hour because her swim coach had made rules that were currently conflicting. The rules were that swimmers couldn’t go into the hallway if they were wet and they weren’t allowed to touch other people’s things. Someone had set their bag in front of my daughter’s locker, so she couldn’t get to her towel or clothes. Hence, she was frozen in place until I came and got her, moving the other person’s bag, and getting her towel and clothes for her. I truly believe she would have stood there frozen for hours if I had not gone in and seen what happened. Her brain simply locked down, unable to come up with a way around the two rules.

4) Do you need to give time for a transition?
With children with ADHD, ADD, autism spectrum disorders, PDD-NOS, etc., it’s very difficult for them to change focus quickly and/or leave their current project. A lot of difficulties can be avoided with the use of timers.

For instance, you want your child to stop playing with their toys and help with the dishes. Announce something like:

“Okay, you need to do the dishes. You have 10 more minutes to play and then you have to do the dishes. I’m setting a timer; when it goes off, your 10 minutes are up and it’s time to do dishes.” (As your child gets older, they can set the timer themselves.)

Using the timer gives your child time to make the transition from one task to another. It allows them the time to finish or come to a stopping place, without an abrupt change. That short time to transition from one task to another can make a huge difference in your child becoming distraught and being able to change to the new task without emotional upset. And the more you practice this, the easier your child will transition.

5) Did you ask them to do something and they had a meltdown?
Is your child misunderstanding what is going on or reacting to something someone told them? Sometimes you really have to be a detective and ask a LOT of questions to figure out what is wrong.

Usually these kids melt down for a reason and in my daughter’s entire life with a LOT of meltdowns, I don’t believe she ever had one that was a pure “temper tantrum.”

Some possible reasons for a meltdown…

Plans change.
You told them you were going to do something, but life interfered. They melt down over the change. (Autistic children HATE change and unmet expectations.)

Try to make outings conditional. For instance, we’re going to try to make it to the museum today, but we can only do that if everything works out. Etc., etc. Doesn’t always work, but often if things are conditional, you can at least remind them of that when things don’t work out and it can help calm the situation.

And this means plans about anything. Going to the store, what you’re going to have for dinner… what colors their crayons will be… anything… take my word for it. 😉

You made a promise and didn’t keep it.
Life happens. Everyone gets it. Except kids with autism and related disorders.

There’s a rule in our house: “Never make promises about future events.” We always  say “We’ll try to go.” “We’ll try to get this fixed, etc.” We never make promises about anything. Frankly, an autistic child will remember every broken promise for the rest of their lives, I swear. Don’t go there. Make a practice of not promising things. (We also do our best to NEVER lie. Autistic kids won’t forgive you for that one, either.)

They heard something that’s scary and you just asked them to do something related to it.
It could be on TV, a cartoon, or something a friend or teacher said…

One day my daughter was refusing to allow her dog to touch her. She literally went into a screaming, hysterical fit and wouldn’t calm down or touch her dog. It turns out her teacher decided to talk about how bad germs were and explain how their pets, including dogs, were covered with these nasty germs, thereby convincing my daughter – who’d had a dog most of her life – that her touching the dog or the dog touching her would kill her. Yeah… It was fun talking our way through that one and getting said child calmed down. (Thanks, teacher, your OCD just cost us several hours of stress!)

There’s something else going on that has them on edge and you just tipped them over it.
Things like fluorescent lights blinking or whining, the sun in their eyes, the neighbor running a skill saw, a new soap brand, the perfume someone wore into your house, or the texture of what they’re eating is wrong. Sherlock Holmes has nothing on parents trying to track down environmental triggers.

They have food allergies that break their brain.
Really. I’m not kidding. Some children, mine included, react strongly to food additives and allergies: dyes (red is NOT your friend! Neither is yellow or any color with any of the two in it), MSG, preservatives, nitrates, sulfites, salicylates, etc., not to mention medicines. If something like that is causing them to act rowdy, misbehave, and generally be mouthy, rude, and eerily similar to a rebellious teenager, it really helps to clean up their diet. Read Is This Your Child by Doris Rapp and look up some of the food lists on the internet.

Many children with developmental disorder react to foods. No one knows for sure why. There are theories about proteins and sugar alcohols crossing the blood-brain barrier, etc. But I do know multiple children like my own who benefit from a “clean” unprocessed diet.

And when something as “simple” (okay, it’s not simple and at times it’s painful) as cleaning up their diet makes them go from constant raging anger to pleasant and cooperative – well… it’s worth trying. And we’ve found in our family, it’s well worth the bother. Not to mention that it’s healthier for everyone in the family.

(Also read: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. I’m being bossy, aren’t I? But I think these books should be required reading for all parents who have children whose brain is wired differently. What we put into our children makes such a difference in what comes out of their brains and mouths!)

6) Did you ask them to do too many things at once?
Many children on the spectrum have auditory processing problems, executive functioning problems, frontal lobe deficits, etc., that cause them to have problems remembering multiple tasks and organizing their behavior enough to complete the tasks, plus impulse control problems that cause them to be easily distracted by anything.

Watch the movie Up and note every time a dog says “Squirrel!” It’s a good image for visualizing and remembering your child’s difficulties with distraction!

Try to give one task at a time or write out the tasks in a list on an index card or whiteboard if the child is old enough to read.  Follow up and help them cross off the tasks as they do them. It’s much better to compensate for this difficulty than get frustrated when they don’t follow instructions.

They aren’t being disobedient; they just can’t understand that many instructions in a row or hold that many items in their working memory and get them completed. I would have to say my daughter’s usual success with following instructions given three at a time would be two items not done at all (forgotten) and one item done incorrectly (confused by the long oral list).

Written lists or tasks assigned one at a time can save your sanity!

7) Did you ask them something they’re not capable of doing yet?
One of our doctors told us many years ago that our daughter’s developmental age would always be about two-thirds of her chronological age. She warned us to expect our daughter’s behavior to be age-appropriate for her developmental age, not chronological age.  Remembering this and reminding each other of it has helped my husband and I deal with many situations.

This was much easier when my daughter was young and didn’t look her age. It became much harder when she hit adolescence and suddenly looked older. But reminding each other has really helped.  Our daughter might have be giggling madly at children’s cartoons… Or insisting there were monsters in her closet… Or knocking over her water glass multiple times during a meal (tippy cups and cup lids are your friend!)… Or she might have been freaking out over the idea of going to an activity by herself…. Or sharing her favorite toys with a friend who’s visiting… Or to falling asleep without being rocked or sung to…

It can be a great relief to be able to trade looks with your spouse and say, “she’s only six” or “she’s only ten.” At 20 chronological years of age, our daughter’s developmental age is now around 13.  (Intellectually, she’s older, we realize, but that doesn’t have as much impact on her behavior as the current developmental age.)

Knowing that fact helps us accept that it’s still necessary to coach her in life skills, remind her of things she ought to be doing, help her organize her college homework on a large re-writable wall calendar, etc. We ask ourselves, “would we expect a 13-year-old to be able to succeed at college with no oversight or accountability?” And we have to answer, “no.” (We hope to remove ourselves from the mentor role after a year or two of college, but we won’t know until we get there. We’re also blessed that the college provides mentors that shoulder part of the load.)

  1. Did you ask them to do something that is against one of their rules?
    Many times children on the spectrum or with related disorders have “rules” or routines of their own. Certain foods they can’t eat, things they won’t touch, things they can’t do without, items that have to be laid out in a certain order, etc. This could be eating only certain textures of foods, wearing a certain brand of pants due to how they fit, or using only one brand of soap.

These rules are usually caused by sensory problems, OCD, or perseveration. Sometimes these things are very evident and we as parents are pretty savvy about allowing for them. And I’m talking about the rules that you can see your child is not choosing voluntarily. Sitting on your bed crying for half an hour because you can’t get your socks to stop hurting your toes isn’t something a child does voluntarily. (If you have this particular problem and haven’t figured out a fix, try seamless socks or turning them inside out. That works for lots of kids. If certain pants “hurt,” try pants with elastic waistbands, etc.)

If your child has to have their toys lined up in descending order of size or has other similar “rules,” most of the time we as parents need to go along with it. If your child is not overwhelmed by other problems, sometimes we can gently redirect obsessions to more appropriate areas, but only sometimes.

It might seem silly to us as grownups, but these kids are not choosing to be governed by these rules. It’s not voluntary. Often you just have to know that your child’s idiosyncrasies and deal with them until they hopefully outgrow them. In addition to not fighting against our daughter’s “rules,” we’ve had her in behavioral therapy since she was very small. Sometimes our family was able or she and the counselor were able to work through a behavior and change it, sometimes not.

Conclusion: If you believe your child is being disobedient, change your thinking.
Assume your child is not trying to be disobedient, analyze the situation, and work through everything that is going on until you discover the truth. Be Sherlock Holmes! 🙂 You’ll be glad you took the time when you discover the 99.9999% probability that your child was not being disobedient; their brain just doesn’t work like yours!