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Autism & White Lies

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Knowing what to say when receiving a gift can be difficult for individuals with autism

We have all received presents that we love and some that we don’t particularly like if at all. When we don’t like a present, we usually pretend that we do. We don’t want to hurt the feelings of the person who has given us the gift. In other words we tell a white lie. This is essentially a social nicety. We take the ability to tell white lies for granted.  It is something which is difficult for many individuals with autism to understand and to do



Many individuals with autism are known to be direct and to ‘tell things as they are’ or to never tell a lie. In many ways always telling the truth is helpful for parents and teachers. However, the lack or inability to lie is not the norm and could be socially inappropriate in some circumstances, such as when receiving a gift you do not like. In that particular situation, the person with autism might openly state that they do not like the present or even ask why on earth the other person bought it for them!



The reason for their lack of lying is closely linked to ‘theory of mind.’ Many individuals with autism have difficulty understanding that other people have their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, plans and perspectives (that can be quite different from their own). They might also assume that the other person already know their thoughts, feelings, plans, etc.



Let’s take the example of receiving an unwanted gift. In order to tell a white lie in this situation, the individual with autism would have to be aware of two different perspectives – the true perspective (e.g., “I really don’t like this present”) and the ‘false’ perspective (e.g., “I love this present, thank you”). They would also need to understand that the person who gave the gift might be hurt or offended if they are told the true perspective and that choosing the ‘false’ perspective (e.g., “I love this present, thank you”) is therefore the better option. Another thing they would need to understand is that the other person does not already know what they are thinking e.g. that they do not like or want the present.



Lying  is cognitively quite complex. When an individual with autism begins to start telling lies, it can lead to additional problems and worries as it does when children who do not have autism begin to do so. At the same time, when a child with autism starts telling lies  (particularly little white ones), they have reached a new cognitive milestone which could be seen as a reason to celebrate!


Inference Pics works on the ability to make social inferences.

Did you know that the apps Inference Pics and Empathy Pics have been especially designed for working on theory of mind with children and adults with autism?


Inference Pics focuses on social inferencing (finding social clues in pictures, understanding facial expressions). Try it for free with Inference Pics Lite.


Empathy Pics works on the ability to take the other person’s perspective and make appropriate comments with that in mind.