LYING IN AUTISM: A COGNITIVE
Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
Many autistic individuals are known to ‘tell it
as it is’ or to never tell a lie. In many ways always telling the
truth has its benefits to parents and teachers. However, the lack
or inability to lie is not normal and could be maladaptive in some
circumstances, such as playing games such as ‘hide and seek’ with
The reason for their inability to lie is closely
tied to theory
of mind. Most autistic individuals have difficulty understanding
that other people have their own thoughts, feelings, plans and point
of views. They also assume that others know their own thoughts,
feelings, plans, etc.
In the case of lying, autistic individuals would
have to realize that they themselves are aware of two different
perspectives of an event - the true perspective (e.g., “I broke
the toy”) and the ‘false’ perspective (e.g., “Someone else broke
the toy”) - while the parent is told only the ‘false’ perspective
(e.g., “Someone else broke the toy”). This type of cognition would
not be likely for those who do not have theory of mind because they
believe that others always know what they are thinking.
When an autistic individual begins to lie, it
can lead to additional problems/worries as does lying in non-autistic
children. At the same time, the advent of lying behavior can be
viewed as reaching a new cognitive milestone and can be seen as
a reason to celebrate!
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