Autism & Rules: A Hand-in-Hand Pair

Today I had to drop my vehicle off for maintenance. While my car was at the dealership, I headed to a nearby shopping plaza for lunch. Walking through a parking lot, I saw two cars speed through stop signs. Then on the way home, I witnessed two drivers run red lights. That was four people within a short time, disregard a basic and important safety rule. Clearly, they weren’t on the autism spectrum!

My son is four years old and has ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Even though we haven’t been on this path for long, one thing I’ve learned is once a rule is understood, don’t even think about breaking it!

Research on Autism and Rules

A study published in Developmental Cognitive Science examined the impact of social exclusion and rule-breaking in children with autism.  While researchers scanned their brains, children with and without autism played online games that either randomly excluded them or broke the rules. Both groups reported similar distress with social exclusion, although there were significant differences in brain activity.

The children with autism reported a higher level of frustration with the rule-breaking than social exclusion as compared with the control group. Their brains also showed an over-active insula during the rule-breaking. The insula is an area of the brain triggered by intense emotion. “Like other studies of moral reasoning, this one shows that no matter how trivial the context, for people with autism, rules are never meant to be broken.”

Examples of Rule Conformity

A relative, whose 14-year-old son is on the spectrum, told me her child got upset when his family members were referring to “Independence Day” as “Fourth of July.” His reasoning was all other holidays are referred to by name, not date. He went on to give multiple examples, such as Halloween isn’t called October 31st, and Christmas Day isn’t called December 25th. To him, they were breaking a rule that should have no exceptions.

Rules certainly play a huge role in my son’s life. He often gets upset if I turn right at red traffic lights because red lights mean stop. I have attempted to explain you are allowed to turn right at red lights. But, to him, I am breaking a rule. I do my best to avoid turning right on red!

Although this rigidity to following rules can cause problems in adaptive functioning, it can also be a strength. So how can you use an autistic child’s strict adherence to rules for their benefit? Here are a few examples.

To Teach Social Skills

Children with autism struggle with personal space, sharing, and other social norms. If we teach rules such as “we don’t hug someone unless we ask them first,” or “when you stand next to someone, make sure you are at an arm’s length,” that can help them interact more appropriately with others.

To Address Behavioral Issues

When my son feels overwhelmed and wants to be left alone instead of pushing people and behaving aggressively or screaming, we are teaching him to say, “I need space.” It is a good idea to practice behavioral rules when the child is calm. For example, role-play a scenario your child might encounter where they would typically act aggressively and teach them a replacement rule.

To Address Safety Concerns

Children on the spectrum are often unaware of danger, so rules can be a great way to help them stay safe. Although we are working on it, my son still doesn’t know how to swim. Our rule is, “you can’t get into the pool without your life jacket.”  To teach him how to safely cross the street, we practice the phrase, “Before crossing the street look left, look right, and look left again.” Even though the “why” to these rules he doesn’t comprehend, he has completely embraced the “how” and is typically compliant in following them.

Conclusion

It is important that we, as parents, caregivers, therapists, and teachers, continue to help children with autism learn to be more adaptive and flexible. However, because rule-following can be an area of great strength, it is a perfect tool to help them learn the skills they need to thrive.

Rules are very important to use because they help us feel safe in a world that is very confusing to us. – Alis Rowe

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 3-30! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with 20 years experience, a freelance writer, and special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.