“He did it deliberately consciously purposefully willfully.”

Most parents have heard their child’s behavior described as being deliberate and may themselves wonder whether behavior is done “on purpose” or not. Often it is a disruptive behavior, such as hitting or throwing. We asked Seattle Children’s psychologist, Emily Rastall for her thoughts on the topic of intentional behavior and what tips she has to offer to parents and others seeking to better understand our kids. Here’s what she had to say:

Lynn: Why do you think there is a tendency to describe behavior as being deliberately disobedient or willfully disruptive?

Dr. Rastall:  For several reasons: One, the behavior tends to cause a strong emotional reaction to the person or people on the receiving end of it. Two: It is in our human nature to want to know WHY something happens. Three:  When the WHY of a behavior isn’t clear, our “default” is to think, “It must have been on purpose.”

Lynn: What are some typical scenarios where this might play out?

Dr. Rastall: It often happens when kids hit, kick, bite, throw things, or run away. It may also happen when kids are perceived as “ignoring” us or are non-compliant with a task (like homework). Also, if a child takes items that don’t belong to him (a.k.a., “stealing”) or gives inaccurate information (a.k.a., “lying”), these behaviors often elicit strong emotional reactions from those who have been “victimized”. This strong reaction is amplified further when the behavior is something that has happened repeatedly (e.g., “I’ve told him a million times. Why doesn’t he learn?”).

Lynn: So then, do kids with autism have intent when they demonstrate these types of behavior?

Dr. Rastall: Let’s define some terms. All behavior has intent, meaning that behavior is ALWAYS driven by something. The behavior may serve communicative, task-avoidant, pain attenuation, attention-seeking, and many other functions. So yes, there is intent. The issue of whether the behavior is pre-meditated (thought through in a planned manner) or ill-intended (meant to annoy or irritate or hurt) is different. In most cases, kids with autism do not premeditate or intend ill will to others. Premeditation and ill will toward others requires highly sophisticated executive functioning skills, as well as a high level of social/communicative awareness (two areas known to be significantly impacted by ASD).

Lynn: I know my child often presents behavior incongruent to the situation, such as giggling when she has made a mess and I’m instructing her on behavior that is acceptable and not. It sometimes feels as if she is not taking me seriously or is making fun of the situation. It’s a challenge to keep a straight face and not let my emotions seep out.

Dr. Rastall: Exactly. Affect (one’s outward expression of mood) often doesn’t match the situation with autism.  Children with autism may laugh at times when it doesn’t seem appropriate to do so.

Lynn: What advice do you have for parents and others to better understand and handle behavior that may seem to be deliberate?

Dr. Rastall: Here is what I suggest:

  1. Do your best to take your emotion out of the situation. Try to remind yourself that the behavior isn’t personal. Remain neutral and calm.
  2. Think about what might be driving the behavior. Ask yourself what the function of the behavior may be. (e.g., to communicate, to avoid something undesirable, to seek attention, to get something desirable, to mitigate something unpleasant or painful)
  3. Think about the environment and what may be reinforcing the behavior (the environment includes not just the physical space but the people in it who may inadvertently reinforce the behavior).

A classic example in the autism field lies in a child without language who may hit, yell, or bite to get basic needs met (like food, attention, desired objects). If we provide that child with a way to communicate (like using cards with words or pictures on them—PECS), the child’s need for hitting/yelling/biting behavior is lessened; the child has a pro-social behavior that they can use to get their needs met.

Lynn: What about behavior that is termed oppositional/defiant or a conduct disorder? Would this be treated any differently?

Dr. Rastall: “Defiant” behavior is just like any other behavior—it serves a purpose. Thus, the response to behavior that has been deemed “defiant” or “oppositional” is similar to the response to non-intentional behavior. We want to eliminate any inadvertent reinforcement of the undesirable behavior, assess the purpose of the behavior, and give the child a more desirable behavior to use to get that need met. We can then reinforce the use of the desirable “replacement behavior.”

Lynn: What do you say to parents who want to know whether behavior is attributable to autism (and therefore, they wonder, if the child isn’t accountable for it or it isn’t likely to change) or to something else such as being a teenager?

Dr. Rastall: I hear that question a lot. I think it’s helpful to take a larger view of your child and the behavior. Whether it is typical behavior for your child’s developmental level or autism, if it’s a behavior that you want to shape, then gather information that lies deeper than what is right in front of you. Do your best to avoid making a social or personal interpretation of the behavior.

Lynn: It sounds as if the bottom line is that all behavior is intentional and we should give kids with autism the benefit of the doubt (meaning that most of the time, the behavior serves a purpose other than hurting others).

Dr. Rastall: Yes. We tend to interpret negatively, behavior that seems deliberate. There may be some benefit to pointing out the effect of the behavior on others (i.e.: “I felt sad when you broke my vase.”) but this requires a fairly high degree of awareness of self and others. This is called theory of mind and it is a deficit in autism.

Lynn: What about the belief that once a child demonstrates a behavior and is corrected, that he should then “know better next time”?

Dr. Rastall: In the case of a child who has been told “a million times” and still demonstrates the undesirable behavior, there is likely something (either internal or external) reinforcing the behavior that outweighs the negative consequences. For example, a child who continually takes ice cream bars from the freezer, despite being lectured and having their screen time taken away for 24 hours, is reinforced by the chemicals in the brain that are released when high-calorie, high-fat food is consumed.

In addition, the executive functioning skills required for in-the moment impulse control (like thinking ahead, weighing consequences) are under-developed in children with ASD, so they will need many more repetitions before they make the connection between behavior and consequence and can think ahead and hold themselves back in these sorts of situations. Some may never quite make this connection, especially, if there continues to be something in the environment that is reinforcing the behavior.

Thanks so very much to Dr. Rastall for helping us to better understand children with autism and behavior. We invite you to share your story of how you helped to shape positive behavior by looking at it from a neutral standpoint.