A child with Asperger's may have a meltdown in the toy store because you won't buy that outer space building set. He might be a skilled negotiator about bedtime or recite facts about turtles instead of answering your question about school. It's easy to term these behaviors "manipulation," but this isn't always accurate. It can be tricky for parents and teachers to tell the difference between a child who is intentionally trying to control the situation to his or her advantage and one who is struggling with some of the challenges of high functioning autism.
Is the Behavior Actually Manipulation?
Manipulation is difficult to spot in neurotypical children, and it can be even more challenging in kids with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) or high functioning autism (HFA). Understanding a bit about manipulation can help you make the distinction.
Understand Types of Manipulative Behavior
According to Psychology Today, there are five main types of manipulation, all of which help the person employing the technique gain something of value. If the behavior falls into one of these five types, it's possible that it is manipulation:
- Deception - This type of manipulation may include lying, but it can also refer to more subtle things like withholding the truth or intentionally confusing a situation.
- Hostility - In a child, this type of manipulation may take the form of tantrums, name calling, and hurtful statements.
- Positive manipulation - This type involves bribery and insincere flattery.
- Negative manipulation - Kids could use this type of manipulation in the form of silent treatment and withholding affection for parents.
- Strategic helplessness - This type might involve playing up hardships, avoiding responsibilities due to a seeming inability to do the task, and trying to elicit sympathy.
Does the Child Have a Goal?
In order for a behavior to be manipulation, the child must have something to gain. If you're in a toy store and your AS child is throwing a fit about not getting a toy, his or her aim is clear. This may be less likely when he or she takes an hour to get dressed in the morning or refuses your offer of a hug. If the child is not trying to gain something, the behavior is not manipulation.
Consider the Sensory Environment
For kids on the autism spectrum, the world is often too loud, too bright, and just too much. Sensory challenges are a major component of Asperger's Syndrome, and they impact everything a child with AS does. The music playing in the toy store may lower a child's frustration tolerance and make your denial of a toy seem like a catastrophe. The frustration may boil over in the form of a meltdown, while the child may not actually be trying to change your mind about buying the toy. Similarly, when a child doesn't answer your question, it can be because he or she didn't even notice it in the stream of constant sensory input.
When a child on the spectrum does something that may be manipulation, take a moment to think about what else is going on nearby. It may help to ask these questions:
- Is there a lot of noise happening? Is there background music that you may have tuned out?
- Are there bright lights, too much sunlight, or a lot of movement?
- Are you in a crowd?
- Did the child recently leave one of these environments or spend a sustained period in this type of situation today?
Understand Theory of Mind
Although children with Asperger's Syndrome are intelligent, they still face social challenges. One of the most significant of these is called Theory of Mind. According to Autism Speaks, this refers to some degree of difficulty or inability in understanding the perspectives of others. This has a major impact on a child's ability to manipulate, since manipulation requires a basic understanding of what motivates and influences another person.
Kids on the high-functioning end of the spectrum can develop skills associated with Theory of Mind, especially if they have received help from parents, therapists, and educators. However, there is no simple way to say that the child has the skills needed for manipulation.
In examining the behavior, you'll need to ask yourself if you've seen enough evidence that the child can take another person's perspective. If you are indeed seeing manipulation, you may be able to consider it a good sign as it relates to the child's social development.
Consider Executive Function Challenges
Executive function challenges are another major aspect of Asperger's Syndrome, and they can sometimes be misinterpreted as manipulation. Autism Speaks defines executive function as the ability to plan, organize, maintain focus, control impulses, and see the "big picture." If your child takes an hour to get ready for school in the morning, he or she may be intentionally dawdling to avoid school. However, it's also possible that the child can't easily break down the tasks of getting dressed or control the impulse to play with a toy instead of putting on her socks.
Four Strategies for Handling Manipulative Behavior
If you've given some thought to the situation and decided that a kid with high functioning autism is actually trying to manipulate you or someone else, it's important to have some strategies for dealing with this situation. Some of the techniques used with neurotypical kids, such as ignoring the behavior, may not work with kids on the spectrum. All kids are different, and one of these techniques may be effective with your child.
Establish and Maintain Boundaries
If your Asperger's child is trying to manipulate you or a situation, take a moment to clarify your boundaries for yourself. Think about what is and is not okay with you. Will you buy toys on impulse? Will you change a bedtime or allow a sugary snack? Knowing where your boundaries are will help you stand firm.
Once you know your boundaries, protect them. Consistency is reassuring to many children on the spectrum. If you always respond the same way to a given situation, there is no point in trying to change your position.
Set Your Own Timetable
Time can play a major role in manipulation. A child may want an answer right away, and she may push you to decide something on the spot. As the adult, you don't have to do that. You set the timetable.
Once you've heard the child's request or identified the goal of the behavior, it can help to clearly state that goal back to the child: "I understand that you want to stay up until 8:30 tonight." Then follow this up with a statement like, "I will think about that."
Then take your time deciding what you think is appropriate, regardless of any time pressure you receive from the child. Once you reach a decision, clearly state it to the child and if it seems appropriate, offer your reasons. Once you've made your decision, do not allow continued negotiation.
Ask Direct Questions
By its very nature, most manipulation is indirect. Indirect communication is a challenge for many kids on the spectrum, and if a kid with Asperger's is employing this type of communication, it can be a good sign about social development. However, to really communicate with the child and address the situation, it's best to revert to direct communication.
Ask questions that get to the heart of the situation:
- "What do you hope to gain here?"
- "Does this sound like a fair deal to you?"
- "Are you asking me about this in the best possible way?"
Make the Consequences Count
Every action has a consequence, whether it is negative or positive. The inherent consistency in this fact can be reassuring for kids with high functioning autism, and it's also an important deterrent for some manipulative behaviors.
Take your time choosing an appropriate consequence for a behavior you have decided is manipulative. If possible, try to find something that makes sense for the situation. For instance, if your nine-year-old had a screaming fit in the toy store, you can explain that you won't be taking her there again for a month because you cannot trust her to behave appropriately.
Consider the Whole Situation
It's easy to interpret some behaviors as manipulative, since kids on with Asperger's Syndrome are intelligent and are often clear about their own desires. However, it's essential to consider the whole situation, including some of the challenges inherent to high functioning autism, before you react. That way, you'll be sure that your reaction is fair and reasonable and that you are taking the child's diagnosis into account.