Is it Asperger’s Syndrome or Is it Defiance?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • A few weeks ago, I was speaking with the mother of a teen with Asperger's syndrome (AS). We talked about the sometimes difficulty of knowing whether your teen is being defiant or if it is simply AS symptoms which are causing him to appear stubborn and unbending. She told me a story of when her two children attended a holiday event in a town about a half an hour away from their home. Her daughter, Maria, who is 18, was driving her son to the event and then meeting friends. Her son, Jason, who is 13, also had friends who were attending and he was supposed to call or text them when he arrived. But once they got there, he refused to do so, saying he would just walk around and if he saw them, he would join them. This wasn't the plan and his older sister felt uncomfortable leaving him to walk around alone. She asked him to text his friends and he refused. After much debate and frustration, she called home and spoke with her dad, who told his son to text his friends while he was still on the phone. After objecting for several minutes, Jason finally texted and found his friend and spent the rest of the evening with a group of friends instead of wandering alone.

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    Was it AS? Did he just not mind being alone, wandering through the event watching what was going on but not participating? Did he feel uncomfortable texting his friends because of the social anxiety caused by AS? Did he really not see a problem with his plan, thinking it was okay for a 13 year old to wander through a town alone, a half an hour away from his home? To him, his plan was logical and made sense. He was there, his friends were there, he would walk around (the event had different activities going on over about a 4 to 5 block area) and eventually run into his friend, if not, he would just stay by himself. He was familiar with the town and felt safe there. He would meet his sister later, when it was time to go home.


    According to, the definition of defiance is, "open resistance, bold disobedience." By that definition, Jason was being defiant when he refused to text his friends. But the question of why remains. If the defiance was because of fear, is it the same as defiance when the motivation is to challenge an authority figure?  Was he seeking independence, as adolescents do? Or was he being a strong-willed Aspie? In the book, School Success for Kids with Asperger's Syndrome, authors Stephan M. Silverman, Ph.D. and Rich Weinfield explain behavioral problems:


    "Although behavior problems are not unusual at home or school, they are not always a major presenting problem in AS. Negative behavioral outbursts are most frequently related to frustration, being thwarted, or difficulties in compliance when a particularly rigid response pattern has been challenged or interrupted. Oppositional behavior is sometimes found when areas of rigidity are challenged. Rebecca Moyes (2002), a parent of a child with AS, has presented a viewpoint on the development of behavior management plans for children with AS. She stresses the importance of first attempting to analyze the communicative intent of the negative behavior. A harsh, punitive approach to negative behavior is especially ill advised when the negative behavior was intended to communicate the child's feelings." [1]

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    In some children, meltdowns from the younger years disappear as they mature, the frustrations of not understanding the world around them, the fear of social interactions, the need for order and for things to "make sense" don't go away. And meltdowns can transform into defiance, simply refusing to do something may be communication just as much as the meltdowns were in the past.


    Sometimes, the defiant behavior is more than communication or a desire for independence. Oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) is a behavioral disorder characterized by:

    • Frequent arguments
    • Problems with adults or other authority figures
    • Anger problems or loses temper quickly and easily
    • Blames others for their own mistakes
    • Easily annoyed
    • Vindictive

    To be diagnosed with ODD, behaviors must be disruptive at home or at school, be persistent and have lasted for at least six months. Children with AS can also have ODD. If you are concerned that your child is exhibiting symptoms of ODD it is best to talk with your doctor and ask for a referral to a mental health expert who is experienced working with children with Asperger's syndrome. Treatment may consist of medication and behavioral therapy. Proper treatment can help your child increase feelings of self-worth and help to build more positive relationships between family members and friends.




    [1] Silverman, Stephan M. and Rich Weinfeld, School Success for Kids with Asperger's Syndrome, 2007, Prufrock Press, Waco



Published On: December 13, 2011