Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Group therapy: When you catch your child with autism doing something wrong

"My teen has autism and recently took a pack of colored pencils from the craft store. He knew it was wrong, and I figured out what had happened on the way home. When he hid them, I went and found them. We talked about it, and he was very upset.  I was very careful not to react in a negative way, to express that we all make mistakes and that's how we learn. I reassured him that I wasn't angry, although I was disappointed. It triggered a meltdown anyway. I understand it is a process to continue talking to him about this, and I have, but he seems to be more upset about being caught than doing something wrong. How do I help him understand what the real issue is?"

This reader would appreciate your advice.


  1. Being literal might help. You could place an object he likes on a table, sit him down and explain that if someone took away his possession he would be upset. Then you could explain that things in a store belong to the store owner and that is why if you take something from the store the owner would be unhappy. Emphasize again that everyone makes mistakes.

  2. It depends on the age of your child and his personality separate from his mental processing and his learning style. Maybe a kinesthetic/visual experience. Recruit a police officer to walk him through what happens when someone is arrested for stealing.

  3. I feel your frustration as I had a similar issue with my autistic son. One thing I've realized over the years is that in spite of knowing​ him well, I can't always pinpoint his feelings. Your son may understand the real issue but not be expressing the fact that he does.

    Talking through an issue and expressing my disappointment tends to work with my son because he desires to please and behave well for the people who mean the most to him. Suggestion in the first response is a good one to try.

    Wishing you well as you follow your mom heart. I recommend "I Have Aspergers" by Erin Clemins (available on Amazon/Kindle). Her book has provided me a lot of insight regarding autism.

  4. 1. Ask your autistic adult friends. If you don't have any, make some. They will be an invaluable source of information and inspiration for you and your son.
    2. As an autistic adult, I honestly don't get why you didn't want to express negativity. He stole. He did wrong. You were angry, you had a right to be angry. Everyone is entitled to their feelings. Don't go around shouting or being violent, but being upset is fine and shows him that you have feelings, too. Many small kids go through periods of stealing just to see what happens around age 3-5. If he didn't hit this developmental milestone maybe he is hitting it now - autistics often do that with developmental stages. Explain that he broke the law, and have him bring the item back/pay restitution to the store manager. Do NOT let said manager just let him off because of his disability. He needs to know laws exist, he broke one. This isn't big enough for cops, but it is big enough for him to work to,pay you back the money if he doesn't have any, and to experience a natural consequence like not being able to go to the store next time. If it was an act of impulsivity and he is usually a rule follower (most autistics love rules and laws) discuss what concrete steps he can take to prevent this happening again, like holding onto a stimulus toy so his hands aren't tempted to steal. And if you're religious Christian, I'm pretty sure there's something about stealing in their holy book and you can use your deity of choice here too.

  5. Oh, and yeah, he will feel bad. He may have a meltdown. That's understandable since our feelings and sense of morality tend to be much more intense than most people's. That's fine if he is upset. To avoid feeling like this, he can avoid stealing. Encourage him to express his anger, sadness, etc. get his teachers and therapists on board. Feeling bad after you broke a law is good for him. Really. (Unless, like me, he starts monitoring the speed limit of everyone he drives with and lecturing them on how they are breaking the law and do they want to go to jail and - my mom hates driving with me. But do I get speeding tickets when I drive? No.)


Thanks for sharing!

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