According to a study done last October at Queen’s University, in Canada, autistic children will tell lies! Uh, yeah, I already knew that. Why didn’t they just come ask some parents? I think we all have some experience in the lying zone.
The premise of the research was that “children with autism have difficulty appreciating the thoughts and feelings of other people, so [the researchers] didn’t expect them to lie to avoid saying things that may hurt others.” They seem to conclude that autistic children will lie to spare feelings. I’m not so sure. Here are the two strange “experiments” the study discussed.
First, they told children with autism that they were getting a really great gift. Then, the children were handed a bar of soap. When they were asked whether they liked the gift, most nodded or said yes instead of “saying they were disappointed.” The “researchers refer to this as “pro-social lies told to maintain good relations with others.”
My first thought was, “Ha! Maybe these kids did like the soap.” So, I did this experiment myself and felt guilty about lying to my son while doing it. I told my son I had a gift for him. He understood that perfectly. He said “A road ripper?” This is a type of car he loves. I did not answer. I told him to come over and sit on his bed. He did it without additional prompting. He was all excited and then I handed him a bar of Ivory soap. He took it. “Do you like it?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. He immediately got back up, dropped it and went to his closet to play cars.
My opinion of this? I’m not sure. He said it so sweetly. It might have been to spare my feelings. This is the same kid that is trying to understand emotions by telling me, “Mommy be sad.” “Mommy to cry.” In that vein, if he was not worried about my feelings, he would have said, “No” if he didn’t like it. So, maybe he does “like” soap or maybe he was sparing my feelings, or maybe he thought that saying yes would get him back to playing cars as quickly as possible. Inconclusive.
I quizzed him further. Do you like soap? “Yes.” What do we use soap for? “Cleaning.” Do you like to clean? “Yes.” (Although you could not tell by the toys out in his room- maybe he is just referring to cleaning his body.) This did not help.
Regardless of his reasons, I’m pretty sure he does not know what the word disappointment conveys. Disappointment is not so hard to feel. It is harder to express. Especially if you don’t know the word to attach to the feeling. So, as to that part of the study, I give the university researchers a “fail.”
The second part of the test was more complex and I couldn’t think of a way to really recreate it accurately. Researchers hid an object and then played a sound as a hint of what the object was so the kids could guess. For example, they hid a chicken and played the “clucking” sound. According to what I read, the kids were able to guess. Then, they hid Elmo and played Christmas music. What? Yes. That’s what the study said. Before the children guessed about Elmo, the researchers left the room to allow the child an opportunity to peek at the hidden object.
Upon their return, the researchers asked all the children whether they peeked. The response? “Both autistic and non- autistic children were equally likely to lie that they had not peeked. But when asked what they thought the object was, children without autism realized giving the correct answer would reveal they peeked so they were more likely to lie and say ”Santa” or “Christmas tree.” Yes, I’m quoting the study.
So, the NTs were more adept liars. The researchers failed to address this lie was sparing someone’s feelings. In my opinion, this lie was to avoid “getting in trouble” for something they thought they were not supposed to do – peek.
Personally, I don’t think much of the test/research. The whole premise of it involved lying by the researchers to the children and then seeing if the children lied as well and guessing their motivations. Lying to test lying doesn’t seem fair or real to me on any level. And it seems it would skew the results by its artificiality.
The concept of deciding that a child who says he/she likes soap is lying to spare someone’s feelings does not connect the lie and the cause for the lie, in my mind. There is no proof that these children lied because they did not want to hurt the researchers’ feelings. It seems to be an unsubstantiated leap. Yes, they proved the autistic children responded that they liked soap.
With the second “test”, the researchers revealed nothing about why the autistic children lied about peeking at all. They only showed that autistic children were not good at coming up with a “fake” guess and that both NTs and autistic children would peek.
A lot of people lie, neurotypical or ASD for a variety of reasons and really, still in my opinion, no patterns or scientific results can come from that. Everyone is a individual with a whole history of baggage that could explain why they do or do not lie.
With my own son’s most recent visit to the emergency room, I was reminded of a very big, past “fake out” or lie he pulled on us.
When my son was no more than 24 months old, he had what is called “nursemaid’s elbow.” A bone in his elbow was dislocated. He had fallen onto the ground at the office while with his babysitter/nanny. For the rest of the afternoon, he was hold his arm in an odd position. When he tried to move it, he would yell. When it did not get better, we took him to the emergency room for care. The doctor diagnosed it, and put the bone back in place through a quick skilled manipulative move and it was over. My little boy was fine.
Much later, maybe about a year, my son “pretended” to have nursemaid’s elbow. We were at home. There was no lack of attention to him. He was not being ignored. There was nothing to trigger the behavior.
He held his arm awkwardly and, again, squealed when I tried to move his arm around. This time, since he was presenting to us in a way that was very similar to what he did during the nursemaid’s elbow, we surmised that he had the same problem and we went to the ER. (He seems to always have problems on weekends or at night when the pediatrician’s office is closed). Once we got there, he was yelling, screaming and crying to go home.
Amazingly, he started moving his arm normally once we were in the ER room and before we saw the doctor. Yes, before. His screaming was so loud during that time, that a few people came by to see if he was being tortured. We ending up leaving while we waited for the doctor because we realized we’d been hoodwinked.
All the way home, we talked to our son about why we do not fake injuries to go to the doctor. To this day, I have no idea why he faked a nursemaid’s elbow unless it was a way to get in the emergency room so he could check it out again. Since my son is not able to describe his thought processes to me, I remain in the dark.
Lying can be a skill used to manipulate others. With my son, is he even capable of lying to spare my feelings? If not then, can lying be simply telling the untruth without a reason or motive? Then is it still lying or does it become something else?
I do know that, overall, my son does not lie. On the other hand, sometimes, like in the faking of the nursemaid’s elbow, he will and did lie, in a big way. Impairment in social communication between me and my ASD child is a huge part of our daily lives. This impairment impacts us more profoundly on some days than others. I simply cannot get my son to accurately tell me the reasons why. As parents, we have to watch, understand and look for non-verbal clues. Being on the lookout will help us keep our kids safe, help teach him right from wrong, and help keep them healthy.
The more we work on the social interaction, the more, I hope we increase my little guy’s ability to communicate with appropriate language. WIth more communication will come more learning. With more learning more socialization. And then, maybe if we’re lucky some degree of independence.
For now, I would just settle for understanding the lies! The other stuff can wait. Slowly, we’ll make progress and maybe someday, he will be able to tell me the reasons why he did the things he did. More likely, he won’t remember and I will never know. I do know one thing. He can be good at one lie but not good at all the follow through lies you have to tell to maintain the original. And in that way, he’s just like anyone else.