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Is There a Link Between Autism and Stubbornness?

January 19, 2024

My son refuses to watch the Barbie movie. He insists Oppenheimer is the better of the two films that made up the Barbenheimer craze of 2023. Here’s the thing: he’s never seen either movie.

Jeremy insists Oppenheimer is good and Barbie is bad due to stubbornness. He is also on the autism spectrum. Is there a connection between autism and stubbornness? If so, what can we, as parents, do to help our children overcome this?

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Understanding stubbornness in autism

The first thing to understand is there’s a difference between stubbornness and rigidity. Stubbornness is defined as “the determination not to change an attitude or perception.” Meanwhile, rigidity is “the inability to change or adapt.”

There’s a lot of rigidity associated with autism, and while there’s also plenty of stubbornness, they aren’t one and the same.

Many children with autism can’t handle a change in routine. It throws off their rhythm and can lead to meltdowns or other issues. That is rigidity.

Stubbornness, on the other hand, is something that can be changed, and autistic people simply refuse to have their ideas changed.

It’s important to recognize whether the issue your child is having is related to stubbornness or rigidity. Once you know if your child is being stubborn, you can work with them to overcome that stubbornness.

Sensory connection

There may be a sensory connection to your child’s stubbornness. If your child doesn’t want to participate in an activity you are encouraging, it may be because of a time that activity sent them into sensory overload.

They may have sensory sensitivities, and what you want them to do activates specific triggers for them. They may need a coping mechanism or positive reinforcement to help reduce the anxiety they may be facing.

Sensory issues can lead to children with autism feeling overwhelmed. This, in turn, can lead to stubborn behavior.


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Positive aspects of stubbornness

While stubbornness can certainly lead to challenges in daily life, there are some positive aspects to being stubborn. Stubborn people:

  • tend to be decisive,
  • tend to persevere,
  • tend to have conviction,
  • are unwilling to compromise ethics,
  • and can be inspirational.

Decisiveness

Children with autism who also happen to be stubborn tend to know what they want. If they have a direction they want to go, they are headed that way.

My son tells us at least once a week he intends to complete dual enrollment while in high school so he can complete some college credits before graduating. It’s quite the goal, but he’s made up his mind and is working towards it.

Perseverance

Have you ever heard the phrase, “It ain’t over until I win?” My father had a tape of a motivational speaker who first introduced me to that phrase. The speaker mentioned how he and his son were playing the game Connect 4 and how the speaker was getting tired.

He said he wanted to go to bed, but his child told him, “It ain’t over until I win.” They played more games until the child won. His child then got up and went to bed. It’s a powerful attitude to have and one time when stubbornness can pay off.

Conviction

Stubborn people tend to be strong-willed about their ideas. While it can sometimes lead to less-than-pleasant behaviors, it can also be helpful.

In an episode of Happy Days, Mr. Cunningham and Fonzie served on a jury where 11 jurors, including Mr. Cunningham, believed the defendant was guilty while Fonzie was the lone holdout.

Fonzie’s stubbornness worked to his advantage here. He combed all the documents and identified the evidence presented to the jury, using his knowledge of motorcycles, and that exonerated the victim, proving being stubborn isn’t always a bad thing.

Unwillingness to compromise

This is one of the stubborn behaviors that can be positive and negative. Unwillingness to compromise when it comes to something as simple as where or when to eat dinner can lead to a difficult time when the stubborn person doesn’t get their way.

However, if someone tries to convince another person to do something wrong, an unwillingness to compromise can be the difference between a correct and incorrect decision.

Inspirational

All of these positive aspects put together can make the stubborn person inspirational. A driven and decisive person with conviction and unwillingness to compromise can be just what the world needs to inspire the next generation of teachers, doctors, or world leaders.

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Managing stubbornness

Most people want to avoid trying to develop an understanding with someone who is stubborn. However, working together to manage stubborn behaviors can lead to a more satisfying bond between you and the autistic people in your life.

Some ways to manage stubbornness include:

  • Staying calm – Keeping a calm attitude can help your loved one pick up on your social cues and avoid further escalations.
  • Be understanding – Communication is key to this management technique. Listen and help the person understand what is triggering their stubbornness. Make sure you are talking to them with simple words, not at them.
  • Ask simple questions – When someone is being stubborn, it may be better to ask “yes” or “no” questions at first. This will help them get their emotions in check and make them aware of the situation.
  • Visual cues – Parents, this may be necessary to get through to a stubborn child. Autistic children often hear words but don’t necessarily process them. Providing visual support may help your autistic children grasp the situation.

Personal experience

As noted earlier, one of my sons is dead set against Barbie and in favor of Oppenheimer without having seen either. He also insists films like Moana, Frozen, and Encanto aren’t good. I have the feeling it’s due to the main characters being girls.

Part of this is being a boy. Part of this is perceived gender roles. And part of this is a stubborn boy with high-functioning autism. However, female-led films aren’t his only times of stubbornness.

Jeremy loves older rock-and-roll music. He loves the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and many of the great bands of the 60s and 70s. He insists all modern music is terrible. He may just have the soul of a 70-year-old man, but this seems like stubbornness coming into play.

His mother and I have worked with him not to be so derogative towards modern music. It doesn’t have to be his favorite, but he doesn’t need to talk down on it to others who may like it.

In contrast, his younger brother, Joey, is stubborn regarding food. He’s not a picky eater; he just can’t get enough food. When he decides he wants a snack, he is driven and determined to get one.

Some of his stubborn behaviors include climbing up on the counter to try to get into the locked cabinet, trying to pull someone over to the cabinet to open it for him, or constantly begging for a snack on his AAC device. 

However, once he gets into the cabinet, he doesn’t want you to get his snack for him. He insists on climbing onto the counter to get the snack himself because he knows exactly what he wants.

Boy trying to take snacks from the counter.
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Autism and stubbornness

It can be hard when a stubborn child refuses to do something, especially if it’s just one activity that may be simple and may help them. Anxiety, sensory issues, changes to routines, and daily life can affect them more than you or I realize.

However, employing effective strategies to help them manage stubborn behaviors and recognizing when stubbornness is a positive trait can help us provide the necessary feedback to help them succeed.

FAQs

Q: Why do some individuals with autism display stubborn behavior?

A: The manifestation of stubborn behavior in individuals with autism can be influenced by various factors, including sensory sensitivities, communication challenges, and a desire for routine and predictability. Understanding these factors is crucial in addressing and managing stubbornness.

Q: Is stubbornness a common trait in autism? 

A: Stubbornness is a trait that can be observed in some individuals with autism, but it’s important to note that not everyone on the autism spectrum exhibits this behavior. The degree and nature of stubbornness can vary widely among individuals with ASD.

Q: Can stubbornness in autism change over time?

A: The manifestation of stubborn behavior in individuals with autism can evolve over time. As individuals develop coping mechanisms, communication skills, and strategies for self-regulation, the intensity and frequency of stubbornness may change.

References:

Mandy W, Roughan L, Skuse D. Three dimensions of oppositionality in autism spectrum disorder. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2014 Feb;42(2):291-300. doi: 10.1007/s10802-013-9778-0. PMID: 23860740.

Qamar, Azher Hameed, and Hira Liaqat. “Parents’ Observation on their Child’s Behavior Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Qualitative Exploration.” Pakistan Journal of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice Vol 11.1 (2020).

Richler, J., Huerta, M., Bishop, S. L., & Lord, C. (2010). Developmental trajectories of restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests in children with autism spectrum disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 22(1), 55-69.

Van Steensel, F. J., Bögels, S. M., & Perrin, S. (2011). Anxiety disorders in children and adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14(3), 302-317.

Yuan HL, Lai CYY, Wong MNK, Kwong TC, Choy YS, Mung SWY, Chan CCH. Interventions for Sensory Over-Responsivity in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Narrative Review. Children (Basel). 2022 Oct 19;9(10):1584. doi: 10.3390/children9101584. PMID: 36291519; PMCID: PMC9601143.

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