“I Didn’t Do It!” – What Your Autistic Child Might Really Mean When Saying This
If you’re the parent of a speaking autistic child, you’ve probably heard “I didn’t do it!” more times than you can count. What you may not understand is why they’re insisting they didn’t do whatever it is you’re saying they’ve done when you just saw them do it with your own two eyes!
You’ve probably heard that autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people don’t lie often, and, when we do, it’s usually because we are trying to save our lives or sanity or prevent ourselves from being attacked by neurotypical people misunderstanding our intentions.
So, if your kid doesn’t usually lie, but he’s emphatically denying something he clearly just did with tears streaming down his face, WHAT is going on?
Believe it or not, that’s an easy question to answer:
He didn’t do it.
Allow me to explain.
Yes, you saw him run through the room, yes, you saw his elbow smack into the photograph at the edge of the table, yes, you saw it crash to the floor and break into tiny pieces. But, to him, he didn’t do it.
What does he mean? He didn’t do it on purpose.
I’ve talked about this many times before about how many autistic people better understand behavior, reactions, and consequences based on intentions, not actions.
So, if young Pete came careening down the hallway to escape a sudden noise (say, a buzzer on the dryer to indicate the clothes were done) that’s causing him sensory overload, the only thing that is on that child’s mind is to escape the sound at all costs.
It’s what his entire body and brain are screaming at him. There is nothing else. There’s no house, no table, no floor, no photograph, no glass all over the place. There is only fight-or-flight terror and pain.
So, if you were to come up behind him in this state and yell at him for his “carelessness” in knocking over the photograph, you’re likely to get an, “I didn’t do it” because, at that moment of an impending meltdown, he probably doesn’t even realize he did anything at all!
Think about the last time your adrenaline was pumping because you were working out, hiking, or moving furniture, and you only noticed a small scratch or a bruise afterward on your body when the adrenaline wore off.
You have no idea how the scratch or bruise happened, you have no memory of what you did because, at the time, there was no pain.
It’s the same with your autistic loved one. In fight-or-flight, you only know to run, escape, fight, flee, or freeze. You only know to survive. The idea of knocking over a photo frame or Grandma’s heirloom vase in the process of escaping the offending sensory input just doesn’t compute.
Therefore, in the aftermath of a meltdown, your autistic loved one may genuinely not make the connection between the broken photo frame on the floor and their flailing limb as having caused it.
This can also be the case when a social mistake occurs. Maybe your autistic loved one spoke in a way that was perceived as too blunt to the neurotypical people around her.
You say, “Jenny, you hurt Grandma’s feelings.” Jenny says, “I didn’t do it!” Because she had no intention of doing it and has absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.
Please keep this in mind the next time your autistic loved one says, “I didn’t do it”. In their mind, they genuinely didn’t do anything wrong, and they don’t understand why they’re being reprimanded. They’re not lying to you or trying to get out of something, they’re just experiencing events differently from you.
In their minds, they didn’t do it, but you’re yelling at them anyway, and they are breathlessly trying to defend themselves as if their life depends on it, because, in a way, it does.
Believe we had no intention of causing any harm and may not even remember what we knocked over or said that you perceived as offensive. This is why it’s so important to reassure us in these moments, and, only when we feel safe and reassured, should you explain what happened (never assume we remember or know what you’re talking about) in detail, why it is perceived as wrong or inappropriate, what feelings you have about what happened, and what we can do to make things right and why we should make it right (give logical, concrete explanations).
Your autistic son, desperate to escape an offending noise, runs into the room at full speed, knocking over a fragile glass photo frame in the process.
- Check if he’s OK. Comfort him, reassure him, help him emotionally regulate first. Keep him away from the broken glass or anything else that might hurt him, but don’t bring up the broken glass photo frame at all.
- Once he is calm, safe, and secure, safely remove and dispose of whatever has been broken.
- Explain to him that in his flight, he accidentally knocked over a glass photo frame, show him the photo that used to be in it, and point out exactly where it used to be (he may never have noticed it before).
- Reassure him that he’s OK and that you love him and you’re not angry. Talk about maybe going shopping for a new one, a sturdier one, that won’t break as easily, and talk about maybe putting it up higher and out of reach.
As an autistic adult who was endlessly chastised for running into things, breaking things, saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, not picking up on hints, not understanding social rules, etc., I can tell you with absolute certainty that doing this to your autistic loved one will cause them PTSD and/or other lasting mental health problems in the future.
Believe our intentions, not our actions. Comfort us, reassure us, explain, give context, and teach. Be patient. “I didn’t do it”, and “I didn’t intend to do it” often mean the exact same thing to us. Bear that in mind.
Books for Better Understanding the Autistic Brain
(Whether you’re an autistic person who is newly diagnosed, or you have a loved one on the spectrum, the books below can help you better understand the autistic brain.)
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