Fact sheet on manipulative behavior and Autism


Children can be viewed as innocent, giving beings who can do no wrong. They can also be perceived as completely self-centered when born, and the process of growing up viewed as learning to not be so self-centered. As any experienced parent knows, both of these can be true at different times, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, regardless of whether a child has autism or Asperger's syndrome.


Most manipulation of parents by children is within the range of normal daily experiences. Children (and adults) often use manipulation as a tool. It is learned and continues to be used, since it has been effective. All people manipulate at some point and in our society this is often rewarded. Parents, teachers and therapists use manipulation to change behavior.

Manipulation operates at a complex level of cognitive and behavioral functioning. Trying to get what you want is not manipulation by itself. A child with profound autism might be screaming simply because they are in pain and need help repositioning. Parents or teachers may label them as manipulative, “She knows it is not time to go out” and then ignore the screaming. The result is that the child remains in extreme pain and adults become frustrated and angry. Manipulation is often confused with frustration and parents need to be careful to not mistake manipulative behavior for those that arise from the nature of autism or Asperger's syndrome.


Forms of manipulation

Manipulation is an indirect attempt to avoid or obtain something in exchange for not losing emotional control. Manipulation can lead to assaultive behavior. Remember beneath every manipulative demand there is a legitimate request. Manipulation can take a variety of forms.


Temper tantrum

In this case the child who is manipulating starts by making a calm but unreasonable request, given the circumstances. When the person’s requests/demands are not met several behaviors can occur such as: Yelling, banging, stomping, property destruction. Tactical ignoring of tantrums is a common management strategy.


Playing the numbers

In this case the person who is manipulating attempts to “play” people against each other hoping that in the confusion the request/demand will be met. Group care settings or brothers and sisters provide an abundance of opportunities for this sort of manipulation.


Promoting confusion

In this case the child who is manipulating brings in related, but irrelevant matters, which leaves the parents wondering what the child really wants. The key symptom is often the parent feels confused about what the client really wants.


Manipulation is a power play, convincing people to do what you want them to do without actually controlling them. When parents, teachers and others feel powerless, they may try and overcompensate by becoming controlling, which results in the child becoming more involved in the manipulation. The unprofessional dynamic is that both the child and staff become engaged in a win-lose situation. If parents do not understand this dynamic, they will not understand the reason for effective detachment. Not detaching from the behavior leads to an increasing power struggle, often resulting in overly controlling strategies being used, such as punishment.


It is difficult to detach from manipulative behavior. Under every manipulation is an unmet need that must be identified. This requires disengaging from the behavior rather than the person. Detach from the behavior and redirect the person. Remember it is not the need that is the issue, it is the behavior a child is using to meet the need that is the issue in manipulative behavior.


Close autism fact sheet by clicking here

Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This autism fact sheet is under copyright of autism-help.org

Most manipulation of parents by children on the autism spectrum is within the range of normal daily experiences. Children (and adults) often use manipulation as a tool to get what one wants.