Manipulation - Does It Occur in Autism? - Autism Awareness

Manipulation – Does It Occur in Autism?

Julia claims she never has her recorder with her yet it is in her backpack.

The avoidance of wanting to play the recorder has nothing to do with laziness or moving on to a preferred activity but rather avoiding a painful auditory situation. Julia can’t tolerate the high pitched notes that are produced by recorder playing, in particular the squawking sounds when students don’t have their fingers completely covering the holes of the recorder. Julia avoids this situation but her behavior is perceived as stubborn and uncooperative. When asked why she doesn’t want to participate in music class, she can’t articulate her feelings. When I asked Julia about it at home in a calm state, she said the sounds in the music class hurt her ears.

There was another situation in gym class over a circuit course. I found out the circuit course started with a skipping pattern, something Julia can’t do. She couldn’t motor plan the skipping so wanted out altogether because she was aware of not looking like the other students. No one knew how to break down the skipping movement for her or modify it in a way for her to have success.

What worries me about this situation is this interpretation of manipulation is coming from an experienced teacher. I used to be a teacher and often heard statements about special needs students trying to get their own way or bother teachers and aides because just because they wanted to. In these situations, we have to look deeper in to the meaning behind them. Often when a person with autism is trying to change a situation, it is rooted in anxiety, sensory issues, or the need for predictability.

If a student has a meltdown and is removed from the classroom to a quiet area, the student may have meltdowns any time quiet time is needed because the meltdown will guarantee that the needs are met. When the reason is known for the meltdown, provide a way out for the student who needs quiet time breaks. Have a signal in place like putting a colored ruler on top of the desk which allows the aide or teacher to know this person needs a break and is trying to tell you so without drawing attention to him or herself. Julia used to have a similar system in grade 1. She used the “gone to the bathroom” sign to get out of the noisy classroom when students were first coming back in from recess. Julia would grab the bathroom sign, put it on her desk, and then go and stand in a quiet bathroom stall. She would emerge once the class was settled again.

I have heard of students who will repeat certain behaviors even with consequences knowing it will provoke a teacher to say the same statement they crave to hear, fulfilling the need for predictability. Is this manipulation? Yes, we could say it is but not for the reasons most of us would assume. When we think we see manipulation occurring, we have to dig deeper into the meaning behind the behavior. It is often not for the reasons we think. Manipulation of another person requires knowledge of how that person thinks and feels about things and the ability to predict what they will do in a certain set of circumstances. This is not something people with autism do well – get into the heads of other people.

When puzzling behavior occurs, take a step back and do an analysis. What happened before this behavior occurred? Is the behavior happening only in certain situations like Julia and her recorder class? What are the consequences of that behavior or how is it dealt with? Does the teacher/aide/therapist react the same way every time a behavior occurs? Could the person with autism be trying to avoid something to alleviate anxiety or address a sensory issue?

Some good reading on assessing behavior and developing strategies:

A Treasure Chest of Behavioral Strateiges

Functional Behavior Assessment

Assessing Behaviors Regarded as Problematic

Challenging Behavior and Autism


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  1. Susan says:

    My adult daughter has self diagnosed herself as Autistic. Her lack of social skill makes me think maybe, but i think she may be playing/manipulating me. I would like some advice – any would be appreciated. In these hardship time – cost is a factor

  2. Thorne says:

    Informative article for sending to the teacher of my Autistic child.  

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