Lying in Autism: A Cognitive Milestone

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 other children.

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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