Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rules and Autism

I found these two articles a few months back, and they were really really helpful in validating some of what I already knew about my kiddos, as well as reinforcing the path we were on with them. And they turned some new lights on for me as well. Just like it's important to know our child's best learning style, we should also get to know how they best understand rules.

This may seem straightforward, and in many ways it is. Rules are rules right? 

But when working (and especially, living) with individuals on the Autism Spectrum, rules and rule following can get a little bit more complicated. For example we have some hard and fast rules in areas where many families probably get by with fairly simple reminders. Such as? Here are a few of areas I never envisioned having to "lay down the law" in:

  • You WILL shower at minimum on Tuesdays and Saturdays, no later than 4:30 pm. (Zak still pushes this rule nearly every week! Just this past Tuesday, he ended up owing me twenty minutes cleaning time because he procrastinated past 4:30 and I had to intervene with consequences.)  
  • No library books in the bathroom. (Because of the tendency to just set them down anywhere without noticing if there is a wet spot on the counter, or too close to the bathtub, and then get in the shower without closing the curtain all the way.)
  • No, you cannot set your alarm to ring before 6:30 in the morning (like 4:30 or 5), "just because" (Zak's words, not mine). 

I believe that every child wants to please. But not every child can when they feel overwhelmed or lost and confused. Sometimes a child may seem like they are being defiant, or disobedient, when in fact they simply don't understand the rules. 

Different kids process rules differently. Most of the time they can be divided into two groups:

  • Rationale-Dependent 
  • Structure-Dependent

This article about the rationale-dependent child is a very apt description of Zak, although he is a mix of the two types, this one is dominant by far. We learned to give him explanations and reasons long before we learned about his Asperger's, and most of the time, he manages quite well when armed with explanations. 

I was a bit surprised however at how accurate this article about the structure-dependent child was in describing Grace. 

She has not, and may not ever be diagnosed, but this was so important in helping remind me that, diagnosis or not, she still faces some unique challenges, and she does at times have some pretty powerful "acting out" moments. Especially when something has become a rule in her head, even though we as her parents never actually made something a rule, and then from her perspective, we are breaking the rule, or changing it on her. And I can't even begin to count the number of times she is the 'police officer', ready to report any and all rule-breaking, by anyone! She sees rules as very black and white, and no amount of explanation will make her budge of she has predetermined what the rule is. And those who disagree, are just plain wrong!

Kit seems to be mostly a structure-dependent kiddo too. Although knowing the rules, but not yet being able to follow them is a symptom of being three as much as it is part of autism. Sometimes with her, absolutely no rule is going to restrain our tiny tyrant!

These sub-types are not restrictive to children on the Autism Spectrum. I think most kids fall generally into one or the other. Kids on the spectrum just tend to need or follow these patterns sometimes in excess or to extremes.

Do you see your own kids in either description? How about yourself? Share your thoughts in the comments!


  1. Most definitely! My daughter shows the structure-dependence. It's both frustrating and slightly humorous to see new rules but into place and then acted on as if we the parents have implemented them years ago. But patience and love is the key. :)

    1. Yes, we often chuckle at some of the funny little rules my kids get stuck in their heads. And other days I feel like I'm going to pull my hair out!