How Not To Gaslight Autistic Kids

Some very dear friends of mine have a daughter in elementary school who has recently been diagnosed with autism.  It took them several years of dealing with emotional dysregulation, anxiety, outbursts, and fighting to get to this point and now they’re adjusting and trying to learn how to do the best they can for her.  I’ve offered some of the same advice you’ll see throughout the autistic community – make sure you don’t gaslight her or deny her experience.  But that brought up a question: “Where’s the line between correcting and gaslighting?  Do we just let her define the experience incorrectly?”  A loaded question, to be sure.  So here’s what I want to tell parents about how not to gaslight autistic kids.

First, Change Your Mindset

First things first, leave off that idea of a “correct” interpretation of an experience.  There’s no such thing.  If you are a non-autistic or neurotypical parent of an autistic child, your child’s senses are different than yours.

Autism is a difference in neurology – we’re literally wired differently than NTs.  Our senses work differently, which is why we stim, why we show sensory-seeking or sensory-avoidant behavior, and why we get overwhelmed.  It’s why we love certain textures and hate certain smells, and why we insist on our samefoods that we know and love.  Our senses are amplified in ways we can’t fully explain to you because we don’t know your experience of living with NT senses.

We don’t understand how you’re not bothered by the sound of fluorescent lights or how you can stand strongly flavored mint toothpaste, but we generally don’t go around telling you you’re wrong for it. 

Wording is SO Important

The difference between correcting and gaslighting is the difference between telling a child with a scraped, bleeding knee “You’re ok, you just need a band-aid” and telling them “That didn’t hurt”.  One of those statements is an outright lie.  Scraping your knee most certainly does hurt, and if you tell a child it didn’t, that’s gaslighting.  But they are ok, even though it hurts, and when you tell them that and help them through the steps of how to handle it (wash the wound, get a band-aid, maybe also a kiss), you’re teaching them how to deal with future scrapes and bruises. 

One accepts the experience and helps the child become more independent in the future.  The other tells the child that their experience/pain/distress is NOT REAL.

I cannot overstate how important word choice is when communicating with an autistic person.  Because we are so literal, if we say something like “this water is too hot” and get told “no it’s not”, we hear You are wrong and your experience is flawed.

Over time, hearing that enough teaches us that we must not trust our senses, even if it’s painful.  This is dangerous.  This leads to kids not telling their parents when they have an abscessed tooth or never mentioning that their shoes are too tight until they have badly ingrown toenails because they figure everyone goes around in pain but nobody else ever complains.  Autistic children will still know that they’re in pain or bothered by some kind of sensory input, but they will assume that it’s normal and that everyone just puts up with it.  So they’ll go about their life in pain because they were told often enough that it didn’t actually hurt.  That’s a breeding ground for meltdowns in the short term and abusive relationships in the long term.

Here’s what I suggest instead:  First, assume an implied “for me” on the end of everything your autistic child says.  “It’s too hot in here (for me)”, “the food is too salty (for me)”, etc.  Second, accept whatever they’ve said about a sensory issue as true.  It doesn’t matter if you are comfortable with the temperature or you like the seasoning, that has no bearing on how an autistic child is experiencing it. Believe them. 

Don’t Try to Correct It, Help Them Define It

Don’t try to “correct” their experience – because you can’t.  Their experience is their experience and it won’t be the same as yours.  But do try to help them learn as many ways to define their emotions and physical sensations as possible. 

Lots of autistic people deal with alexithymia, and we often have trouble differentiating between emotional feelings and physical feelings.  I’m nearing 40 years old and I still struggle with this, despite having worked on it in therapy and practiced describing these things clearly as a fiction writer. 

Autistic kids have an even harder time with this because they’re still working on not only understanding the language but also understanding and recognizing their own feelings and their bodies.  We learn these things slower than other children – don’t assume “they should know by now”.  Interoception is a hard skill to master!

So instead of just negating your child’s statement of their experience, give them some options to help them pinpoint their feeling or sensation. 

If they say their food is too spicy, ask if they mean it’s spicy or that it’s a hot temperature (I used to mix those up as a kid).  Or if there isn’t anything spicy in the food, do they mean it’s too salty?  Too much salt at once can affect my tongue much like a jalapeno, it really does burn – but don’t ask me what “too much” salt is, because too much for me might be just enough for you.  Anything tangy, like vinegar or citrus, could also be mistaken for “spice”.  Even minty things might be called “spicy”.  Basically, anything that would hurt if you rubbed it on a papercut.          

For an autistic child who says some piece of clothing “feels bad” – well, BadFeel textures are definitely a thing!  But it will help them to be able to be more specific, so you could ask if it’s itchy, if it scratches, if the collar is too tight (for me, this means the neckline is too high – I know it isn’t literally tight but it still feels like it’s choking me), if the tag is bothering them, if it’s too tight or too loose, etc. 

If none of those get a response, you may just have a BadFeel on your hands, so don’t press the issue.  BadFeel textures are like chewing aluminum foil.  You can usually identify a BadFeel texture by asking if it’s too smooth, too crinkly, does it make too much noise (I’m thinking of windbreakers – uugghhh!!), is it too fuzzy, too nubbly, etc.

The larger vocabulary an autistic child has to describe and define their feelings and sensations, the better equipped they will be for everything in life.

Teach Them Ways to Deal with Their Experiences

Autistic kids will not “grow out of” their sensory experiences.   We will always experience the world differently.  As parents, the best thing you can do for an autistic child is to teach them ways to cope with their experience of the world. 

Never assume that an autistic kid is “taking on” (as my mom called it) or making excuses.  Presume that they are telling you the truth of what they’re experiencing and help them figure out how to work through it.  Sunglasses and ear defenders are easy ways to help a kid who’s sensitive to light or sound and can help them cope with being out in the world.  You might need to remind a child to blow on a hot drink before taking a sip.  Or if they say the water is too hot to wash the dishes, tell them to add some cold water but explain that they’ll have to scrub more or use more soap to make sure the dishes get clean.  Got a scratchy tag?  We can’t ignore it, so don’t even bother with that, but tell them that you can cut it out, see if there’s a way you can tuck it away from their skin, or offer to sew a soft ribbon over it.  As kids get older, you can introduce them to tagless clothes. 

The autistic brain doesn’t always make these connections on its own.  Often, we run into a roadblock and we don’t know what to do so we just stop.  By teaching your child that there are ways to work around their sensitivities, you’re not only helping them in the moment.  You’re teaching them two crucial life skills: how to take care of themselves in a world that isn’t made for them, and to always look for options in any situation where they might get stuck.   

It’s not difficult to avoid gaslighting autistic kids.  Just accept and expect that they’re telling you the truth and help them work out ways to live in the world anyway.  Assume they’re not being malicious and ask them what they meant, offer them options to choose from.  I know, having been an autistic kid myself, that we’re not that easy to live with.  But I can promise you, your autistic child is doing their best and their best will get better with your support.

Young girl in a white top shaking her head from side to side, her hair covers her face

Did you experience gaslighting as a child?  What else would you like parents to know about how to accept an autistic kid’s experience?  Parents of autistic children, have you struggled with this and do you have any advice?

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34 Comments

  1. Karen

    June 5, 2020 at 3:55 am

    Thank you for a valuable personal perspective on how it really feels for an autistic child.

    1. Grace

      June 5, 2020 at 6:10 am

      You’re very welcome, Karen. I’m glad I can help!

  2. Jan Rook

    June 7, 2020 at 4:05 am

    Thank you for this, even as an autistic mother to an autistic child it’s hard to remember that your experience is different to theirs – my parents were strict and religious so the fault was definitively mine as a child but still I have to consciously remember how it felt to be told I was wrong about my own body/emotions/experiences. It still happens when I need hospital treatment and even while giving birth! The problem is that you grow yo to believe anyone who speaks authoritatively and leaves you open to abuse and manipulation

    1. Grace

      June 7, 2020 at 7:45 am

      Hi Jan,
      I agree, I’ve ended up accepting treatment that I shouldn’t because I didn’t trust my own feelings and also questioned my own pain because people around me said I was “oversensitive”. It makes such a difference to be believed.

  3. K

    June 8, 2020 at 1:24 am

    Thank you for writing about this and explaining what goes on. Very helpful. We are on the path to build self esteem. Any ideas? I know my son has been misunderstood so many times. By us and by his peers. He will say “never mind” when i didn’t hear or don’t understand. Have to keep encouraging because his voice is important and I want to understand what he said. Abundant health and joy to you!

    1. Grace

      June 8, 2020 at 7:13 am

      Hi K,
      I know that feeling, going immediately to “never mind” because it feels pointless to try to explain yourself *again*. It’s hard. I think your best bet is to keep encouraging, as you do, saying plainly “I really want to understand what you meant because it’s important to me”. It can be very hard to counteract what happens at school, but all you can do is your best. Remind him that his feelings matter and back that up with your actions – respect his choices, likes, dislikes, etc.
      My best to you and your son!

  4. Cam

    June 8, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    I was gaslighted nonstop for my sensory issues as a kid. Sadly, no one knew I was autistic. It was still horrible and actually traumatic for me. I thought I was going crazy and I couldn’t trust my experiences. I did things that hurt and didn’t tell my parents that I was in pain because I figured everyone was in pain and they just sucked it up and didn’t complain. I was tired of being told that my feelings weren’t real and I was overreacting or being too sensitive. In recent years, my sensory differences have been recognised more by my family, but I still get gaslighted sometimes, and it still hurts. Thank you so much for writing this. I hope that no autistic children have to go through what I went through as a child… but, sadly, I know a lot of them will. I just hope this article can help so that fewer autistic people experience sensory gaslighting!

    1. Grace

      June 8, 2020 at 5:50 pm

      I went through similar experiences. Nobody knew I was autistic until I was in my 30s. On top of that, I’m hypersensitive to pain while my mother is hyposensitive (she hardly feels most pain at all), so I was constantly told I was “taking on”. It got to the point that I wasn’t sure if I was actually hurt or not sometimes. It took years of growing and standing up to people who dismissed me and getting riled up at people for saying things like “it’s not cold” for me to regain ownership of my experiences. Some people won’t stop gaslighting you, no matter what you do, so just remember that you know your own experience better than anyone else.

    2. Absence

      June 22, 2020 at 7:28 pm

      This exact thing. I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood so I figured the exact same thing, that everybody deals with this and I’M THE ONLY ONE not coping.
      I still automatically think that sometimes. Like I forget I’m not normal until I try to do something normal and it’s a disaster and I’m devastated all over again, every time lol

      1. Grace

        June 22, 2020 at 7:33 pm

        I know that feeling so well! Just when I think I can do something, it ends up failing and I remember I’m just not like other people.
        Don’t dwell on it – I know it sucks and it gets in your head and it’s hard to get away from – but don’t let it drag you down. You’re awesome!

  5. Andrea

    June 8, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    I am always on the lookout for autistic adults who write about their experiences, it is helpful when you are a parent to be able to gain an understanding of what your child is going through. This was so useful. I am glad someone shared it so that I may read it.

    1. Grace

      June 8, 2020 at 5:52 pm

      Thank, Andrea!
      I’m glad I can help parents understand their autistic kids a bit better. I was very misunderstood as a kid myself, and I don’t want anyone else to go through that when all it takes is a little explanation. Thanks for reading!

    2. Sarah

      June 23, 2020 at 2:39 am

      While pregnant I was insistent my kidney felt wrong. Everyone ignored me because my pee was fine. I went back to my doctor as he said if it’s still funny come in. He listened to me, gave me suggestions for words and I was able to describe it feeling fat, over inflated and lumpy. After some sitting calm I could feel a nipped bit below my kidney. My doctor said I had described a fairly common condition in pregnancy although it’s normally only picked up by testing. He sent me for an ultrasound and my right kidney wasn’t draining and it was suspected that baby was squashing the tube. I could tell within a mm the size of my kidney. The ultrasound technician was amazed. I was offered all sorts of pain relief as it was exceptionally sore and irritating (my doctor believed me despite most people with the condition being unaware and not in any pain). I discovered by laying down in a certain position it relieved the nip and after 20 mins or so my kidney would drain and I could get up and potter around for a while till the pain built up again. Again various midwives didn’t beleive me so the doctor sent me for two ultrasounds, one when the pain was bad then a chance to reduce the pain and a second scan. The ultrasound technician agreed the kidney had drained and wasn’t as full after I had been comfortable for a while. Unfortunately that didn’t help in labour and I was treated as if I belonged in a mental hospital. They did things without my consent, consistently lied to me, appare fly for my own good and did not beleive anything I told them, even when proven to be right. I ended up with an unrequited c-section

  6. Paula Newburger

    June 8, 2020 at 6:05 pm

    I found this very informative and useful going forward. Thanks for sharing

    1. Morrisey

      June 19, 2020 at 1:52 pm

      Thank you for this. I’m in my 40s and I am still gaslighted by my family. I am able to mask fairly well, but the impact is devastating and I still don’t trust my own feelings and judgements. I also have an autistic son and I am doing everything I can to support and acknowledge his feelings/pain/experiences.

  7. Kim

    June 9, 2020 at 7:09 am

    Great read. As a parent of an autistic child, I appreciate advice from autistic adults.

  8. Candice

    June 9, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    This was helpful. Thanks!

    1. Veronica

      June 10, 2020 at 4:02 am

      My daughter. Her teachers did not believe her experiences. At ALL. They tried to bully her instead…

      1. Grace

        June 10, 2020 at 6:46 am

        I’m so sorry to hear that! I went through a lot of issues with teachers, especially in elementary school.

  9. Caitlin

    June 9, 2020 at 9:08 pm

    I found that really helpful to read. It might also be helpful to know more about what your friends mean by “correcting the child’s interpretation of an experience”. I didn’t take that as meaning they wanted to correct things that were a matter of subjective experience. More that they were wanting to correct the child when the child was ascribing motive or intent or neglect to the adults. For example, “I didn’t get my fair share of the cake” when the child was factually given or offered an equal share of the cake.

    1. Grace

      June 9, 2020 at 9:32 pm

      Hi Caitlin,
      In the context where that question came up, I understood it to mean correcting subjective experience or at least the child’s description of it. Things like “too spicy”, “too hot”, “too cold”, which require realizing that their experience is not the only experience.

      However, there are also times when their daughter ascribes motives and needs things explained to her. As far as I’ve been told, those issues are getting better as they learn how best to communicate with her.

  10. Patty

    June 10, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    I never realized he was really feeling these things. My son gets convenient stomach aches when he doesn’t want to do something. Now I see he is really struggling. And I’m going to change my parenting. Thank you for this article! I really needed it.

  11. Patty Sampson

    June 10, 2020 at 5:24 pm

    I write a blog for other autism parents under the name Abby Christianson. It’s to give my son some privacy. Would it be ok if I canonized your article? My blog is at ldsblogs.com and I’d of course give you full credit. This is info that needs to be shared far and wide.

    1. Grace

      June 10, 2020 at 6:39 pm

      I’m not gonna lie, your comment brought me to tears. Yes, autistic kids are really feeling all these things but we don’t understand as children that you aren’t feeling any of it, so we can get very confused.

      Anxiety in children (autistic or not) often shows up as stomach aches. As an adult, my anxiety still starts in my stomach. It took me years to make the connection between that vaguely sick feeling and being scared of something.

      I’m glad I could help you understand your son a little better. My best to you and your family!

    2. Grace

      June 10, 2020 at 6:42 pm

      Sure, I don’t mind! Please send me a link to it once it’s set up.

  12. dawn polny

    June 11, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    This is a wonderful piece. Thank you. I have two children in the spectrum. I have often heard people refer to my daughter’s meltdowns as just being a spoiled child trying to get their way. I would really like people to realize that this is absolutely not the case. When this happens my daughter is struggling to deal with an overload. It’s not a situation where she can’t have something so she throws a fit. People really need to stop assuming and stop judging. Autistic children are not spoiled brats or ‘bad ‘ kids just acting up. There is so much more going on. If you are a new NT parent my advice to you is to ignore these types of comments. Your focus needs to be your child, no matter where you are. Help them to calm down and get them to a familiar place, like your car. Stay calm. Getting upset yourself will only aggravate the situation. Patience will be your saving grace.

  13. Lisa

    June 22, 2020 at 6:44 pm

    What a great article and an excellent reminder. My only question is, what if their experience may be unsafe for them? E.g. kids that struggle with interoception and therefore may not feel thirst and know to drink even when it’s 40 degrees Celsius? Or goes out in a T-shirt and shorts when it’s 3 degrees Celsius because they don’t ‘feel’ cold and yet you see their lips are blue? Or is failing to thrive because they don’t eat because they don’t feel hunger? How do we navigate the need to keep them safe whilst still respecting their experience and not gaslighting them?

    1. Grace

      June 22, 2020 at 7:28 pm

      All very good points, Lisa! If it’s a question of health and safety, you have to err on the side of tough love. You have to get them to eat and drink, and that may mean navigating some food/texture issues. In my opinion, getting food and water into them is better than not, so if they have a favorite samefood, let them eat that and save trying to introduce new foods for a while. They may need to be reminded – I still forget to eat and drink often and I rely on my friends and phone to remind me to do so. If it’s cold out but they don’t feel it, find them some long sleeves and long pants that feel good and don’t bother them. Maybe save fighting over a jacket for the days when it’s truly too cold to safely go without an extra layer.

      Interoception is a skill, and it can be learned, but it takes work. A good therapist may be able to help, I think Occupational Therapists work in that area.

  14. Ali

    June 22, 2020 at 9:02 pm

    This is terrific thank you. It rings very true for how I am working to understand my autistic teen, even though I knew they were hypersensitive as a baby. They were not diagnosed until 14 y.o. and it was a relief for everyone. They would really appreciate your article. Even now I have to remind myself to believe them (or sometimes be reminded). I do have to encourage them to eat at times, as they find the whole experience physically uncomfortable. It’s harder for extended family members to understand, as my child is highly articulate and intelligent – “but they can’t be autistic”.

    1. Grace

      June 22, 2020 at 9:19 pm

      I get that “you can’t be autistic” stuff, too. I have a day job, a large vocabulary, and no intellectual impairments – but I forget to eat and have to make sure my clothes are tagless and soft, and the seams in my socks drive me crazy. I think the best thing you can do as a parent of an autistic teenager is to help them learn to work around their sensitivities. If they don’t like the act of eating, help them find foods with textures that are easier to bear and teach them to make smoothies – nutrition doesn’t have to require chewing. Phone reminders and scheduled meal/drink times can also be a big help.

  15. Kat

    June 23, 2020 at 2:45 am

    Thank you for this! I grew up being told that I am “sensitive”, “difficult”, “ridiculous”, for my sensory experiences. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult. I was in abusive relationships from age 19 to 24. By that time, I had learned to ignore my feelings and not to trust my intuition. I wish I had known all this sooner.

    1. Grace

      June 23, 2020 at 10:20 am

      I have a very similar history! I’m still learning when to listen to my feelings and my intuition as far as relationships go. You’ll get there! I wish you all the best!

  16. Leeanne Carlin

    June 27, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Thanks you, NT mum to an 8year old autistic boy. I’m always trying to find ways to understand him. Most of you advice is things I already do but great to know I’m doing right by him.

  17. Jan

    July 1, 2020 at 5:40 am

    This is a great article thank you so much for this – it’s great to pass it on to people who are learning about how to deal with situations – ❤️ I’m learning every day xxx

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