How can we help autistic children tell the truth…
This is a complex and tricky topic to navigate as there are lots of unwritten and movable social rules surrounding lies that often, as children (and sometimes adult’s), we don’t understand.
Why do children lie?
Exploring what’s true and fantasy is a normal part of child development and particularly difficult for some autistic children, especially those who withdraw into fantasy as a coping mechanism.
A lie almost always has a function. What’s the reason? Is it an unmet need? Is it a scripted response? Are they fearful of your response, or have they experienced negative responses before? Have they not processed the consequences, so are telling you the first thing that comes to mind?
Things to consider.
All people lie; your child will see this in everyday life. When we tell autistic children they must never lie and lying is bad, we hold them to higher standards than we do other children. The difference is that other children can read between the lines and figure out when it is socially acceptable to lie and when it’s not. In other words, they learn how to not get caught.
Exploring boundaries of truth-telling and lying in a safe space. As I said above, lying is a very complex social thing to navigate. Are they testing out the social boundaries in a safe space with you as their safe person?
Have they been vilified socially before for being too honest? “does my bum look big in this?” have they been called a “grass” by their friends or told off for telling tales?
Low self-esteem: Many of our kids already have very poor self-esteem; making them feel worse won’t help them.
Things that might help.
Humour! It’s an excellent way to remove any negative connotations.
“you didn’t do this? Oh no, it must’ve been the unicorn that lives in the pantry then, never mind!” This tells your child that you know but also sidesteps shame and direct confrontation. (adapt depending on your child).
Give processing time. “I’m sure this is what happened; how about we go and have a little think about it, and we can talk about it after dinner?” Being put on the spot is very difficult for many of us and likely to evoke a masked response.
Don’t overreact, but also don’t ignore it. Because we have it drilled into us that all lies are bad from a young age (even though we frequently tell white lies ourselves), we can tend to overreact, try and remember what the goal is here, we are aiming to teach our kids and shame won’t do that.
The tone of your voice, a lot of our kids, are hyper empathic, and tone of voice can be a real trigger. Even the thought that they have disappointed us in some way can cause significant stress. Keep your tone light and non-confrontational.
Help them explore the social nuances around truth-telling, be honest with them that sometimes white lies are ok, give them examples.
Be the one safe person with whom your child can be 100% honest and model that with your reaction to their honesty. If you don't react well, then you aren't showing them they are safe with you.
Unfortunately, it’s a very grey area, and a lot of how you approach lying will depend on the individual child, but here are some ideas to get you thinking about it.
Hope that helps?