All children lie at some point, usually to avoid getting in trouble. That doesn’t mean they do it well—after all, who else but your toddler would scribble all over the walls?
Most children with autism struggle with abstract concepts, social communication, and interpreting things literally, so as a parent, you might wonder: Can my child with autism lie? Does lying come as naturally to autistic children as typically developing children? Can they tell when others are lying to them?
Luckily, autism research has looked into this topic, so let’s explore it.
How common is it for autistic children to lie or telltale?
Li et al. (2012) studied how children with autism try to deceive compared to neurotypical children. The researchers wanted to see whether there was any difference in the telling of “antisocial lies” (told to conceal misbehavior) and “white lies” (told to be polite).
To test the first type of lie, the children were told not to peek at a toy sitting behind them while the examiner left the room. When the examiner returned, the child would be asked if he/she had peeked; if he/she denied it, the examiner would ask “What kind of toy do you think it is?” and “Why do you think that?”
A total of 15 autistic kids and 15 neurotypical kids disobeyed the examiner and peeked. It was found that 14/15 and 13/15 children, respectively, lied about it.
However, there was a significant difference in each group’s ability to maintain the fib. Only one of the 14 children with autism pretended not to know what the toy was when asked, while seven of the 13 neurotypical children did.
During this test, the children were given a gift they had already expressed dislike for, usually a plain bar of soap. Then, the researchers asked if they liked the gift. The children who lied were also judged on how convincing they were. A response like “It’s okay,” was considered unconvincing, an expanded answer, like “I finally got my own bar of soap” was considered convincing, and a simple “Yes” was neutral.
There was a less significant difference in this test—the majority of each group lied, with the majority of those fibs being neutral.
Overall, the researchers determined that children with autism weren’t less likely to tell lies than typically developing children. However, they were less able to do so effectively.
It’s worth noting that not all autism research has come to the same conclusion. Talwar et al. (2012) conducted a similar toy-peeking experiment, but only 72% of the autistic participants lied compared to 96% of typically developing children. They also found that the children with autism who lied didn’t cover it up as well.
Either way, it’s definitely possible for children on the spectrum to be liars. But some think that the thought process behind lying is different for kids with ASD.
Why do children lie?
Most children grow up learning to tell the truth—just look at the story of Pinnochio. Although lying can be an annoying behavior for parents, it’s also a sign that kids have entered important developmental stages. Generally, child psychologists think that kids are able to deceive once they start developing…
According to the American Psychological Association, executive functions are higher-level cognitive processes, including:
- Self-regulating behavior
…and more. Executive functioning is important to deception because the liar must set the goal he/she wants to achieve by lying—for example, the goal might be: “I don’t want the lady to know I peeked at the toy.” Then comes the decision: “I will say I didn’t peek.” Then comes the organizing of the lie: “I cannot correctly guess what the toy is, because then she’ll know I peeked.”
Many people with autism struggle with at least one component of executive functioning, like following directions or controlling emotions.
Theory of mind
Theory of mind is the understanding that other people have different perspectives, knowledge, beliefs, and intentions. Typically developing children usually gain theory of mind around three to five years of age. This skill is often tested with a false-belief (FB) task.
A FB task aims to see whether a child understands that others don’t have the same knowledge he/she does. The child may be given a scenario like this:
“Jacob puts a snack in a bowl and leaves the room. While he’s gone, his mother walks in and puts the snack in the refrigerator, then leaves. When Jacob returns, where does he look for the snack?”
Many children with autism will answer “the refrigerator,” unable to grasp that although they know that’s where the snack is, Jacob doesn’t know.
Though most high-functioning children with autism will eventually be able to develop perspective-taking, it usually occurs at an older age than neurotypical children.
Why do children with autism lie?
If autistic children tend to struggle with two of the cognitive skills important to lying, how can they do it anyway?
Autism research doesn’t quite have conclusive answers to this, but there are theories. In the aforementioned Li et al. (2012) study, the children with autism and the typically developing children were tested on their FB understanding as well. As expected, the typically developing kids scored much higher on average. FB understanding didn’t have a strong correlation to whether either group lied in the first place, but the neurotypical kids with better FB understanding also told more convincing antisocial lies.
However, the researchers were surprised that better FB understanding wasn’t correlated to better antisocial lying in autistic children. They posited that this “may simply demonstrate that children [with ASD] can manipulate others’ behaviors but do not necessarily reflect a conscious attempt to instill a false belief in the mind of another.” In other words, deceit by kids with autism may be more of a learned strategy to avoid punishment than an indication of actual perspective-taking.
As for the white lying, there wasn’t a correlation between effective deception and FB understanding for either neurotypical participants or autistic ones. This could be because white lying is learned more by “socialization from parents, or the amount of experience in politeness situations…”
Other studies have also found that theory of mind doesn’t factor into deceit by children with autism. Ma et al. (2019) determined that autistic kids lied less than neurotypical kids and intellectually disabled kids. Autistic kids that did lie had stronger working memory—a key part of executive function—but not stronger theory of mind.
This suggests that “the mechanisms underlying deception for children with ASD are distinct from that of [typically developing] children.”
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Can children with autism spot a lie?
Just like children with autism are less likely to deceive others, they’re also less likely to realize that they’re being deceived.
Williams et al. (2018) had adults watch videotaped interactions and guess whether someone was lying. The participants with autism were much less able to identify the liars. This isn’t surprising, given that they had to correctly interpret body language, facial expressions, and other clues—something many people with autism struggle with.
Van Tiel et al. (2021) also studied whether adults with autism can tell if they’re being lied to, but they wanted to see if people on the spectrum have more trouble with deceit itself, or just the social norms around deceit.
They had participants play a game against a computerized opponent. In the first rounds, the human player needed to trick the computer player to reach his/her goal; in the next rounds, the computer player was programmed to try and trick the human.
The players with autism were initially less likely to try and deceive the computer. In the next rounds, they were slower to pick up on the fact that the computer was tricking them. But as the game went on, they grew better at both until their skills were almost equal to the neurotypical participants’.
The researchers concluded that people with autism are less adept at perspective-taking, which would help them lie and detect lying more easily—but they may be able to compensate by using a strategy of logic and learned behavior.
How do I help my autistic child spot a liar?
Detecting falsehoods is an important skill, especially for kids who need protection from bullies and predators.
Ranick et al. (2013) did an experiment with three children on the spectrum to see if this skill could be taught.
The therapists taught the children about lying and why someone would do it. Then, they would work fibs into natural conversation while playing. For example, a therapist would take the child’s toy and say: “Your mom said I could have this.” If the participant questioned this, they were praised. If he/she didn’t, the therapist would say something like: “Hold on, why would she say that? Do you think I’m telling the truth?” Using leading questions, the therapist would help him/her realize that he/she was being lied to. Here, logical reasoning helped the participants figure it out.
Eventually, all three kids improved and could transfer the skill to interactions with peers.
Research into autism and deceit is still ongoing, but it’s clear that autistic children can and do distort the truth. The underlying thought processes might just be different than those of neurotypical people.
Lying can be a troubling behavior, but it’s also a normal part of life for everyone. Do what you can to teach your kids about the wrong and right times to deceive. At the end of the day, your child’s first tall tale is actually an important part of growing up!
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Executive functions. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/executive-functions
Li, A. S., Kelley, E. A., Evans, A. D., & Lee, K. (2011). Exploring the ability to deceive in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 41(2), 185–195. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-1045-4
Ma, W., Sai, L., Tay, C., Du, Y., Jiang, J., & Ding, X. P. (2019). Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder’s Lying is Correlated with Their Working Memory But Not Theory of Mind. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 49(8), 3364–3375. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04018-9
Ranick, J., Persicke, A., Tarbox, J., & Kornack, J. A. (2013). Teaching children with autism to detect and respond to deceptive statements. Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 503-508.
Spectrum. (2021, February 4). Theory of Mind. Spectrum News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/wiki/theory-of-mind/
Talwar, V., Zwaigenbaum, L., Goulden, K. J., Manji, S., Loomes, C., & Rasmussen, C. (2012). Lie-Telling Behavior in Children With Autism and Its Relation to False-Belief Understanding. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 27(2), 122–129. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357612441828
van Tiel, B., Deliens, G., Geelhand, P. et al. Strategic Deception in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 51, 255–266 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04525-0
Williams, D. M., Nicholson, T., Grainger, C., Lind, S. E., & Carruthers, P. (2018). Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 11(8), 1129-1137. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29701910/