Lying or misunderstood? Difficulties for those with Autism
Lying is not usually a trait associated with autism. If anything, it’s usually the opposite.
For those of us on the autistic spectrum, lying is very difficult as means being aware of your own body language and trying to make sure you don’t do anything that is suspicious.
But trying to figure out what someone else would find suspicious is not easy to do! It involves being able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. This is challenging for those with autism due to difficulties with theory of mind.
So what do you do when your child or loved one appears to tell a lie? When you’re looking straight at them and they tell you something that you know isn’t true?
What I often find is at play here, is misunderstanding, not lying.
We know that autism makes communication challenging. We also know that those on the spectrum are very literal.
When these two difficulties combine it can appear as though a person with autism is lying.
Think about the following situation.
Teacher watches as pupil A (diagnosed with Autism) kicks Pupil B as he walks past.
Teacher: Why did you kick pupil B?
Pupil A: I didn’t.
Teacher: I watched you!
Pupil A: I didn’t kick him.
At this point, most teachers would probably send the child outside to talk to them more about the situation and to see why they’re lying.
However, a few more questions might help.
Teacher: What did you do?
Pupil A: I tripped him.
This was pupil A’s intention, what he meant to do. However, he missed and kicked the child instead. Because his intention was to trip him, he can’t see that when he missed, he actually kicked him.
Pupil A wasn’t lying. In his mind he hadn’t kicked the child as he had meant to trip him. He struggles to see that by hitting the side of pupil B’s leg, he actually kicked him.
This can also be the case when asking for objects.
If your child has specific names for certain items you may be familiar with this already.
So what can you do?
- Ask the child
If the child is able to talk to you, then ask them what they actually did. But be sure to listen carefully. Try not to interrupt as they explain a situation. Even if you know what they said is wrong let them continue until they’ve finished. When they’ve finished, explain why what they actually did quietly and calmly. In the situation above, the conversation might go like this.
Teacher: When you trip someone, it’s when your leg goes in front of theirs and they trip over it. Did you get your leg in front of his?
Pupil A: No. I tried to and missed.
Teacher: So what happened then?
Pupil A: My foot hit his leg.
Teacher: When your foot hit his leg that means you kicked him. You mustn’t try to trip anyone in case you hurt them or kick them by accident.
This may seem a drawn out conversation but it works. The incident has been dealt with, without pupil A becoming stressed and confused. Pupil B also feels that it has been dealt with.
2. Be specific
Language can be so confusing!
For those of us on the spectrum so many words have so many different meanings!
If you’re asking your child for an object, make sure you refer to it by the name the child uses. If they have a teddy they refer to as ‘sailor bear’ then make sure that you use that phrase as well. Asking them to get their ‘teddy’ may result in them telling you they don’t have one.
This isn’t a lie.
To the child they don’t have a teddy. They have a ‘sailor bear’. As you asked them to get their teddy, they aren’t lying when they say they don’t have one.
This can also be a reason to try the next tip.
3. Teaching generalisation
One way to combat this is to teach your child discreetly.
When it comes to objects or items, talk about the ‘other’ names people might call their object. It’s useful because not only will it help them to learn other names people might call their object, but will help to avoid situations where they appear to lie.
It doesn’t matter if your child agrees with the name. Reassure them that they can still refer to it as normal. They just need to understand other people may call it something else.
I always think it’s helpful to reassure the child that language is tricky! That there is so much to learn and that they shouldn’t feel bad if they misunderstand some things. Those without autism sometimes forget how confusing language can be when you have to learn everything discreetly.
The key with all these tips is to have patience.
Patience and a good sense of humour! Sometimes the things those with autism say can be unintentionally quite amusing!
Do you have any funny tales of when your loved one with autism misunderstood with amusing results? Comment below, I’d love to hear them.