Why all the lies? Lying and ASD.

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.

A gift of soap...

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.


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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14 Responses to Why all the lies? Lying and ASD.

  1. I really liked this post, very interesting. My son has only recently started to talk a bit, so I hadn’t really thought about the whole lying thing yet. But he does lie to me quite frequently. When he’s had a BM I always ask him “have you done a poo poo? Do you need me to change you” and he looks at me and says “no poo poo” because he doesn’t want to stop what he’s doing. Or else, when he’s making lots of noise in his bedroom when he’s meant to be sleeping, sometimes that can be because he needs changing, so I go up to check on him and he’ll tell me “poo poo” hoping that I’ll whisk him away to change him and then he can procrastinate about going to bed again. But I always check first and more often than not there’s no poo poo. **sigh**

    • solodialogue says:

      Thank you! Excellent point about lying and the poo-poo!! My son constantly lies about pooping (PPT – partly potty trained). He can pee on the toilet fine but will poop himself practically daily unless I get him there in time! When I ask if he’s gone in his pants, about 40 % – he says no, then I repeat and he says “yes” I’m pretty sure there’s no one’s feelings to spare about that lie – except his own! Lol!!

  2. Lizbeth says:

    Oh the researchers…being a past biology major I always question who’s funding the grants. I did bench research for years and found a lot of it to be less than reputable. Kinda like Phillip Morris paying for a study to show smoking doesn’t cause cancer….
    Anyway, enough of that… I think my kiddo can lie but he chooses not to. He understands deception and is confused by it–why would you lie if you don’t like something? He has not grasped the interpersonal component of hurting someone else’s feelings. I mean, why would you not tell someone the truth??? It’s lead to some interesting blunders…

    • solodialogue says:

      You have no idea how much I relate to your statement about Phillip Morris funding the cancer studies, but that’s a different blog in my life as a lawyer.

      I would love to read about the blunders! I don’t know if my son really gets the concept of hurting someone’s feelings or not. I think he may but that he is inconsistent in whether he recognizes the tie-in between being honest and hurt feelings. It’s an interesting question.

      • Lizbeth says:

        I’ll give you one–we were at Walmart and in the checkout line and there was a rather, shall we say, large woman in front of us. She had a Mickey tattoo on her ankle. Alex takes one look and very loundly procaims, “Mom, look that fat lady. She has a mouse on her leg! Ewwww…” I thought she was going to strike me dead in the parking lot.

      • solodialogue says:

        You must admit how funny that is…

  3. Deb Mangum says:

    Out of the blue, I wondered if there is a connection between our Auties liking repetitive behaviors or scenarios? Could he have been replaying the Elbow Episode in the DVD player that is his life? Then, like usual, losing interest after a while and needing an immediate termination of the Show? Of course this is just free association, but that made me wonder about some stuff in our lives. I like to muse and your writing sets my mind roving around to find some of my own answers.

  4. Nancy says:

    I’ve never met an ASD kid that wasn’t brutally honest.

  5. eof737 says:

    Very interesting research… but then lying isn’t so uncommon to the rest of us.

  6. Big Daddy says:

    My boy might be the worst liar ever. Sure he’ll try but once you ask him “Are you lying?” he fesses up. He would do exactly the same thing when handed the soap and I know he sometimes says things that aren’t true. But I think, more often than not, he doesn’t understand the question or is merely looking for a way to end the conversation. Either way, I don’t really consider that lying, per se.

    • solodialogue says:

      Mine is a bad liar also. He does exactly what Griffin does! Yeah, IMO this study made me ask more questions about the researchers than answered any real issues dealing with ASD. Not understanding the question or trying to get away from the question was something I’m sure the researchers here never even thought of and I would agree that they are not really lying. Someone needs to teach the researchers how to do a study.

  7. Melissa says:

    I don’t think this really “means” anything as it were. When I give my daughter (asd) who has really just started to speak… 2 choices that are not her favorites (she’d eat the same food every meal 365)…. especially food that aren’t snacks… she’ll choose 1 but it doesn’t necessarily means she LOVES it or even LIKES it much. I think this sort of more of the same. I don’t really think this is a case of lying at all in the clearest sense of the word. More like, somebody just TOLD me this is a really great gift. It must BE a really great gift. But I think actions speak louder than words in this case (going back to play with cars).

    • solodialogue says:

      I feel the same. The “study” as it was called was trying to make conclusions that simply did not follow from the facts found. The researchers, who have not listed any personal experience with ASD kids, assume a lot of things to get to the result that these kids are “sparing” someone’s feelings. It would be nice to believe all that but it would be nice to believe a lot of things. The sad thing is that I don’t even think they see how absurd the whole thing was. Thanks for stopping by.

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