Autistic Behavior vs Misbehavior

How can you tell whether the poor behavior is the result of autistic symptoms or if it's ordinary naughtiness? It's not always easy to distinguish between "autistic" behaviors and "misbehavior."

An angry boy being scolded by his mother
Tim Denison / Getty Images

Many of the behaviors that are typical of children on the autism spectrum might be deemed problems in other kids. For example:

  • Kids with autism may screech or yell when overwhelmed or frustrated.
  • Some autistic children bolt from the room, hit others, or even injure themselves when upset.
  • Children on the spectrum may not look directly at a person when speaking.
  • Autistic kids may rock, flick, or pace when they are expected to sit still.
  • Children with autism may be self-absorbed and inattentive to events or emotions around them.
  • In school, children with autism may overreact or underreact to others' requests or needs (for example, pushing other children in line or ignoring requests to move or to hurry).

Difficulty Responding to Kindness

Autistic children may also have a tough time managing their responses to adult or peer "kindness." The following examples may sound familiar for parents of autistic children:

  • Grandparent comes to visit. They see their autistic grandchild, open their arms, and ask for a big hug. The grandchild runs in the opposite direction at top speed. Grandparent follows them and gives them that hug, only to be rewarded with a kick in the shins.
  • Grandparent gives their autistic grandchild a gift, and their grandchild says, at an age when they should know better, "I don't like this! I wanted a ___!"
  • A peer from school agrees to a play date and finds themselves ignored for several hours while the autistic child plays alone. Or the guest may spend two hours being told, "Don't touch that!"

All of these behaviors can lead to hurt or even angry feelings. Yet all are typical of autism, and, in most cases, result from sensory, communication, or behavioral challenges that are common for those who have autism.

Distinguishing Autism From Misbehaving

Autistic behaviors are usually the result of a few very specific challenges. Because every person with autism is unique, the challenges will look different for each child, but they exist, at some level, in anyone correctly diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Sensory Challenges

People with autism are almost always likely to either overreact or underreact to sound, light, smells, and touch. The child who runs away from a grandparent may actually be responding to the smell of their perfume. The child who hates hugs may dislike the sensation of being squeezed but actually feel affection toward the person doing the hugging.

A sensory challenge can be something as minor as the buzz from fluorescent lights.

Sensory challenges may also be the reasons behind "misbehavior" when in a crowded or loud auditorium or squeezed between people when standing in a line. How can you tell when sensory issues are causing a problem? Take these steps:

  • Ask. If the child is verbal, they may be perfectly capable of explaining behaviors if asked.
  • Watch. If a child is covering their ears while bolting from the room, it's reasonable to assume that something about the sound in the room is causing a problem.
  • Keep tabs on behaviors. If a child is usually able to handle church, but on one occasion becomes loud or runs out of the room, it's fairly apparent that something specific has occurred to cause the behavior. But if the behavior is consistent, there may be an ongoing sensory challenge in the environment.

Social Communication Challenges

Many with autism have a tough time with social communication at one level or another. It can be difficult or even impossible to "read" others' emotions, or it may be very difficult to avoid overreacting to others' feelings. It can be very tough to "watch and imitate" others' behaviors.

The fact that others are sitting still and being quiet may not register for a child with autism. What are the signs that a child is having difficulties with social communication?

Notice the child's intent. Difficulties with social communication can make it hard for a child with autism to tell when their actions may be hurtful. Walking away out of boredom or a desire to do something different may look mean-spirited, but there's a very good chance that the child doesn't recognize how their behaviors are likely to affect others.

Remember that an autistic child has developmental delays. A neurotypical 12-year-old should be able to graciously thank a grandparent for a gift they do not really want. A typical 8-year-old may not be able to handle the situation as well. Children with autism are often immature for their age; a teenager on the autism spectrum may behave like a much younger child.

Be aware of how instruction is provided. A teacher says a child is misbehaving at recess by pushing in line, taking extra-long turns on the swings, etc. But children with autism, because they rarely learn through imitation, need direct instruction on behavioral expectations.

Did the teacher actually tell the child about the rules of recess play? Did they provide visual supports and social stories? If not, how is the child expected to know the rules?

Behavioral Challenges

"Autistic" behaviors are usually self-evident because they are generally quite different from neurotypical behaviors. As a result, a caregiver should be able to tell at a glance whether they're seeing misbehavior or autistic symptoms. Here's what to look for:

  • Self-stimulation (stimming): Many people with autism use physical behaviors such as rocking, pacing, flicking fingers, and humming to calm themselves and to stay focused. When you see such behaviors, you can be almost completely certain that they are not a form of misbehavior.
  • Lack of eye contact: For many people with autism, eye contact can be difficult, if not impossible, to manage, particularly during a conversation. While it is possible to teach a person with autism to maintain eye contact, lack of it is not a form of misbehavior.
  • Self-abuse: In some cases, particularly (but not exclusively) for people with severe autism, self-abuse is common. Banging their head, picking at skin, and other behaviors, are not intentional though they can be harmful to the child and should be managed.
  • Lack of focus or attention: People with autism may find it easy to focus on one thing, but tough to focus on others. Often, they are paying attention without appearing to do so. Sometimes, they are not able to pay attention because they are having a tough time following rapid speech or abstract ideas. Very rarely are they intentionally ignoring a speaker.
  • Noise-making or bolting: While kids with autism are perfectly capable of making noise or leaving the room just to be annoying, it's highly likely that they are doing so for other reasons. They may be screeching, humming, or chattering to calm themselves, or bolting from the room to get away from a disturbing situation. As a guardian, you will usually be able to tell the difference.

According to one study, lack of eye contact is a way for the autistic person to decrease unpleasant sensations caused by an overactivation in one particular area of the brain.

Addressing Autistic Behaviors

So you've determined that a child's behaviors are not "misbehaviors" but are, instead, "autistic" behaviors. Now what?

You can, of course, do nothing. And in some cases, that's perfectly reasonable. Why shouldn't a child with autism rock, flick, or pace? If they're hurting no one and creating no problems for themselves, why bother them?

Sometimes autistic behaviors, while they are not intentional, can cause significant issues. They can cause embarrassment (both for the child and their guardian); they can create hurt feelings or even angry feelings; or they can lead to a child being ostracized or excluded from an important group, activity, or setting.

What can you do about that? You can take action on many different levels. Depending upon the importance of the situation, a child's abilities and challenges, and your philosophy. Below is a list of options.

Provide Direct Instruction

If a child is able to respond to and act on direct instruction, provide it! Use words, video, modeling, practice (rehearsal), and social stories to teach the child how to behave in church or at a concert; how to respond politely to grandparents; or how to interact at a birthday party.

While these may not come naturally to a child with autism, in many cases, instruction and repetition can be the keys to success.

Remediate Challenges

A grandparent's strong perfume or cologne is causing their grandchild to run away, so the best choice is to say "Hey, please don't wear that perfume. It is unpleasant for your grandchild." Similarly, you can avoid squeezing a child who dislikes hugs; put in incandescent bulbs if fluorescents cause a problem; turn down the sound level on the TV; and otherwise make life more comfortable.

You can ask for similar accommodations in school, though it can be tougher to get them in an inclusive setting.

Choose Settings and Situations With Care

If an autistic child hates loud movies, don't go to loud movies. Alternatively, a pair of noise-blocking headphones may make the sound level more comfortable. Consider going to "autism-friendly" events, or selecting instructors who better understand children with autism.

Grow a Thicker Skin

The safety and comfort of your child is most important, not anyone's "embarrassment," including your own. Guardians of kids with autism are occasionally likely to experience situations that draw more attention to them. Best bet? Grow thicker skin, and seek counseling to ensure emotions are managed in healthy ways.

Change the Situation Completely

In some circumstances, a child's school, home, activity choices, or location may need to change.

This may sound like an extreme response, but if the child's school is unable to serve their needs; neighbors are intolerant; or if preferred activities are simply impossible for an autistic child, a guardian may need to consider options such as a private school, a different neighborhood, or a change in routines.

Addressing Real Misbehavior

No capable guardian would punish a child for age-appropriate behavior. Babies cry. Two-year-olds struggle with toilet training. Tweens need help managing their time.

On the other hand, no capable guardian would make it easy and acceptable for their child to lie, hit, hurt others' feelings, or behave in ways that are damaging to themselves or others. And while it does make sense to modify expectations and change situations based on the indivitual, everyone needs—and deserves—both structure and limits.

Without these tools, it is almost impossible to build self-discipline, a skill that is absolutely essential to independence, resilience, success, and self-confidence. As with any other child, the responsibilities of guardians are to:

  • Set and communicate limits and expectations. Hurting people (physically or emotionally) is not acceptable. Neither is lying or acting out when someone can control themselves. Everyone needs to know their limits and expectations. Children with autism may need to learn about those limits very directly, through instruction, visual tools, and social stories.
  • Recognize misbehavior. You know the child in your care, so the majority of the time, you will know whether they are intentionally lying, ignoring instructions, or hurting others. 
  • Respond quickly and clearly. If you catch an autistic child misbehaving, you will need to be extremely clear about the issue, be able to communicate why it is wrong, and how you feel about it. Sarcasm, the "cold shoulder," or other techniques may be misunderstood or ignored altogether.
  • Provide meaningful, consistent consequences. In the best of all worlds, a child's misbehavior will cause its own negative consequences (deliberately dumping cereal on the floor means no cereal for breakfast). Consequences that are meaningful to a child, (no TV, for example) can be very effective.
  • Offer support for improving behavior. Some children respond well to earned rewards for good behavior (eat breakfast properly for a week, and I'll make your favorite meal on Sunday). Children with autism often need immediate reinforcement for a job well done; that can be in the form of a small treat, high fives, or just a big smile.
  • Notice and respond to good behavior. It's important to be responsive when a child does behave well and to be very specific about what is good about their actions. For example, "Honey, you did a great job sharing your toy with your friend."
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.