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What is autism? And what is just behavior? 

How do I know where the line is between accepting my autistic child as they are, while not letting them do whatever they want just because they’re autistic?

Where exactly is the line between the behavior that kids do—because spoiler alert kids misbehave—and the behavior that’s directly caused by autism that we shouldn’t touch because we should embrace our kids?

Have you ever asked questions like this?

How do we know if something is an autism thing? Or is it just behavior?

How can you really know the difference between autism and behavior as a parent?

That’s exactly what we’re diving into today… The line between Autistic traits and just behavior, the answer to the “question behind the question”, and when exactly parents should try to change their Autistic child’s behavior.

Young blonde girl facing the camera with her eyes closed and mouth open, shouting. Her fists are pushed behind her. Text reads: How do you know if something is autism or behavior.

(Psssst… You’re coming to the brand new free training, 3 Secrets to Become a Confident Parent-Advocate, right? Check it out here!)

How Can You Tell if It’s Autism or Just Behavior?

I get asked a lot about where that line is between autism and behavior.

The thing is, there’s a “question behind the question” here that most people miss.

Parents ask things like…

What is autism? What’s behavior?

How do I know if it’s a typical kid thing, or if it is an autistic trait that needs to be accommodated for?

But the real question they’re asking me is…

What is the behavior I should intervene? And what is the behavior that I should leave alone?

What is the behavior I should accept? What is the behavior I should change?

And here’s the thing, the fact that you are asking this question actually tells me that you’re well on your way in your autism journey.

And here’s why…

It tells me that you know already that autism isn’t a negative thing that should be changed. It tells me you already want to protect who your child is.

And at the same time, there are some behaviors that just aren’t actually acceptable.

And so how do you know if what your child is doing is an actual autistic trait that should be accepted and accommodated for, or if it’s a harmful behavior that actually should be changed.

How Parent-Advocates are Stuck in the Middle

When I started my work in advocacy, my drive for it was the fact that as I started my journey as a parent of an autistic child, I didn’t even know that I was autistic.

And all of the resources for parents of autistic kids was giving the same narrative.

Change your kid. Change your kid. Change your kid.

And then I started seeking out autistic resources, and I kind of immersed myself in autistic culture, especially when I found out I was autistic myself as an adult.

But I wasn’t finding resources for parents that shared the autistic perspective. I didn’t find really what to do or how to do it.

Just a lot of don’t do this and don’t do that.

So as a parent, I was kind of left thinking, okay, but what do I do?

Can you relate?

If you look at parenting resources, about behavior, or especially about typical autistic behaviors, you are going to find things like…

  • How to change the behavior
  • 3 behaviors to never accept
  • You better raise a child who is kind
  • You better raise a child who has manners
  • Four Pinterest hacks for when your child does this to make them stop

But then, on the flip side of that, if you start looking at autistic-led resources, or you ask in a Facebook group, oftentimes the answer is…

  • Let your autistic child be who they are.
  • Why would you want to change them?
  • Accept them as they are
  • Stop being so ableist
  • Leave them alone

And somewhere in the middle of that, you kind of get stuck as a parent.

Because here’s the thing… You know that you don’t want to change who your autistic child is, you fully accept and embrace who they are as an autistic person.

But also, as a parent, it’s kind of our job to change our kids from who they are right this moment, into the autistic adults that they are becoming.

And at some point that involves changing certain behaviors.

We don’t, as humans, spend our lives exactly where we were developmentally at three.

Our kids are growing and changing and developing, and it’s our job as parents to guide that development and that change and that growth.

So how does that fit in a world where one side is telling you to change everything, and the other side is telling you to change nothing?

What are Autistic Traits?

I like to start by thinking what Autistic traits really are. And to do that, first we need to talk a little bit about what “autism” really is.

Autism is a diagnosis that you can go get.

You can go to the doctor, you can fill out forms, you can see therapists and neurodevelopmental pediatricians and neuroscience and a million different people…

And you can get an official diagnosis when you see the right person and they say, yes you are autistic.

But being autistic is also an identity.

If you are around autistics, it won’t take long for you to kind of start to see that. Autism is an identity and it’s a culture of itself.

Because of that, asking “what is autism?” is kind of like asking “what is French?”

There are some overlaps between being French and being Italian. They might even do some of the same things.

But it doesn’t mean it’s not a French thing if Italians also do it, and it also doesn’t mean that it is a French thing, just because French people do it.

I know this analogy is a little strange, but the basic point is, defining with clarity, this is autism and this is not is really just an endless battle.

Because the fact is, what is autism and what is not is different for me and different for my son and different from my Autistic best friend. We all experience our identity and our culture, a little bit differently.

What is Just Behavior?

So instead, let’s look at behavior. Because just the word “behavior” is kind of a loaded term.

(And I say this as a parent coach whose job all day every day is to help parents solve behavior struggles.)

If I asked you to list out some behaviors, what would you list? My guess is it would be things like hitting or kicking or refusal or defiance.

We typically think of behavior in the form of negative behaviors. But the fact is, behavior is simply the things we do.

So waving hi, using your voice to make sounds, and twirling your hair are all behaviors, too.

Everything humans do is behavior.

So when someone asks, “is this autism or behavior?” the answer is most often, “yes”.

But again, let’s remember the question behind this question: what behaviors should I accept, and what behaviors should I change?

What Behaviors Should I Accept, and What Behaviors Should I Change?

As parent advocates, we accept and embrace our kids, and we want the world to accept and embrace them as well.

But also as parent-advocates, we have to, you know, parent our kids.

And sometimes accepting and embracing can kind of feel like we stopped parenting altogether.

So here’s the deal… It really doesn’t matter if what your child is doing is “autism or behavior”.

What really matters is… Is it harmful?

Harmful behaviors—even if they’re Autistic traits—should be changed.

Now you might be thinking, hold the phone Kaylene… You preach constantly about not changing Autistic kids… And now this?

But here’s the thing: If a behavior is causing harm, the cause of the behavior doesn’t justify ignoring it.

Now, the cause of the harmful behavior is important for solving the problem or changing the behavior (you can read more about that here) but it shouldn’t determine whether or not it is changed.

Now you might be thinking… Okay, then when is a behavior harmful?

And eventually, I’ll write an entire post on that specifically. But for now, here are a few questions I run through when determining this:

  • Does the behavior harm themselves?
  • Does the behavior harm others?
  • Does the behavior ignore other people’s consent?
  • Is the behavior illegal?

And if you go through this list and your child’s behavior is harmful, it means that as a parent you get to solve that problem with your child.

But it’s important to remember that solving the problem isn’t about harsh punishments or strict rules.

It’s simply about parenting your child and helping them solve a struggle. So get clear on these things…

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • Why is it happening?
  • What can we do about it?
  • How can we solve the problem together?

Notice how this isn’t “how can we fix the child” or “how can we train the child to stop” or “how can we use ABA techniques”.

Quite simply, you’ve now identified that there’s a harmful behavior (problem) and why it happens (the cause). So the next step is, how can we solve the problem together?

Now I know, this seems easier said than done. There’s only so much that I can fit in a blog post. (I’m already over 1500 words, friend!)

The fact is, as you try this out you’re going to face some stuck points and need to tweak and shift your plan.

And you don’t have to do that alone!

That’s why I’ve put together a brand new free training, 3 Secrets to Become a Confident Parent-Advocate, where you will discover…

  • How to find tethers that will keep you centered when parenting gets hard so that you can stay calm and remember why you’re fighting so hard to meet needs and advocate in the first place.
  • The key to become the #1 expert on your unique child in order to confidently advocate for exactly what your child uniquely needs instead of looking for generic “accommodations”.
  • The exact, 5-step journey that all parents of Autistic children must take so that you can always know that you are on the right track and have a clear nextstep to follow.
  • Exactly how to tweak & adjust when things change with your child without feeling like you’re stuck starting from scratch every time your child’s needs change.

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