Welcome to the January edition of Ask Dr. Emily?

We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Rastall, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format. We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Rastall will do her best to answer them each month.

Send your questions to theautismblog@seattlechildrens.org.

Q: My 3-year-old son just got a provisional autism diagnosis. I think he is able to “lie” to me. For example, after I put him in his crib he told me he needed to use the bathroom. So I brought him to the bathroom, but he refused to go. All the while, he was smiling and singing and excited to be out of the crib. Another time, he pretended to cough (while smiling) so that I would give him cough syrup (he loves the taste). Is this “lying?” Is it premeditated? What is going on here?

A: This sounds like pretty typical “kid” behavior. Most kids will try about anything to get what they want and/or like. Sometimes that means saying things that aren’t true to get their needs met. They are not meaning to deceive, but rather, they have learned that a certain behavior offers a certain result. Thus, they try the behavior again to see if it will pay off. Let’s say a child in the crib really does need to use the bathroom one night, and while doing so realizes, “Hey, I’m out of my crib!” They are more likely to ask to use the bathroom the next night as a way to get out of the crib.

Here’s another example: A child gets a fever and receives medicine and extra attention, gets to stay home from school, and gets to watch cartoons all day. They may try to convince you later that they are sick in hopes that they might get the same attention and privileges they received before. Who can blame them? I think we can all agree, this is less premeditative than simply reinforced, or learned behavior.

The best thing you can do in these situations is to give as little attention to the behavior as possible. You’ll want to do your own fact-checking and then respond as needed. Redirect and distract to move on to the next thing as soon as possible. Good luck, detective!