Is That Child Autistic or a Spoiled Rotten Brat?

Tantrum at the supermarket
Supermarket Boy. Getty Images

Children with autism are prone to odd behaviors. They may make loud noises, act impulsively, and run or climb when they shouldn't. They may be unusually picky eaters, refuse to wear certain clothes, or have a tough time falling and staying asleep.  They may bang doors, flush toilets unnecessarily, run out of the house naked, or whack their siblings.  They may be inattentive, distracted, or even throw very loud, long-lasting tantrums sometimes called "meltdowns."

All of these behaviors are socially unacceptable. And none of them are unique to children with autism. In fact, most adults, seeing a child over the age of infancy behave in these ways, assume that they are watching a child who has been "spoiled rotten" -- that is, a child who is rewarded for behaving badly by parents who are unwilling to say "no." 

There are really only two situations in which a typical adult will immediately understand when they are seeing autistic behaviors rather than ordinary naughtiness.

The first such situation involves a child whose non-verbal articulations and physical presentation are so unusual that they are obviously autistic. This would include, for example, a teenager who is using guttural sounds instead of speech to communicate, or a child who is rocking and flapping his hands. These behaviors are extreme enough to send the message "this is a person with special needs."

The second such situation, not surprisingly, is when the adult has (or works with) a child on the autism spectrum. Autism parents, as a result of being around many people on the spectrum in doctors' offices, therapy groups, and special education classrooms, know the signs of autism like the back of their hands.

But what if you're not an autism parent -- but you are observing or interacting with a child who appears to be misbehaving. Perhaps you're a coach, a camp counselor, a swim instructor, or a museum docent.  How can you tell whether a child is autistic -- or just spoiled rotten? 

Here are a few clues to help you determine whether the child you're working with or observing needs discipline or accommodations.

  1. The behavior seems to occur out of the blue. While typical kids might act out as a reaction to being denied what they want or annoyed by a peer, kids with autism are more likely to act our as a result of sensory challenges (too much light, sound, heat; uncomfortable clothing; strange smells) that may be almost "invisible" to the rest of us.
  2. The behavior is repetitive but isn't purposeful. A child who is opening and closing a door over and over again, perhaps positioning his eyes to watch the movement of the door, is unlikely to be doing so in order to be "naughty." She is probably enjoying the sensory experience and is oblivious to whether the behavior is appropriate.
  1. The behavior is age-inappropriate. When a bright 12-year-old can't stop blurting out answers in class, or insists on talking incessantly about "babyish" videos or characters, he is unlikely to be doing so just to drive classmates crazy. These are impulsive behaviors and age-inappropriate interests that are often associated with autism.
  2. The child isn't watching for a reaction. While typical kids will "act out" to get a reaction from peers or adults, children with autism "act out" for their own, internal reasons. If you see a child doing something that would typically be considered "naughty" (sitting under a desk, climbing onto a bench, running where they shouldn't), but they aren't interested in anyone's reaction to their behaviors, they may be exhibiting signs of autism.
  3. The child seems socially clueless. Children with autism may have a very tough time reading others' reactions, especially when they're subtle. As a result, they may inadvertently drive peers crazy by talking endlessly about a favorite topic, invading personal space, or assuming they are welcome when they're not.

While none of these signs is absolute proof that a child is diagnosable on the autism spectrum, they are certainly signs that a child is not causing havoc for fun or to get their own way. Whether autistic or not, they are kids who need some extra help to manage the complexities of daily life!

Continue Reading