Defiant Behavior in Autistic Children

By Karen Doyle
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Most children will exhibit defiant behavior at some time. For children with an autism spectrum disorder, which impacts a child's communication skills and social interaction, such behavior may be more intense and more frequent than it is in other children. Typically developing children may outgrow this type of behavior, while defiance may continue and even increase over time for children on the autism spectrum.

Difficulty Understanding and Describing Emotions

Children with autism typically have difficulty understanding emotions -- their own and those of others -- and have difficulty expressing their own emotions in acceptable ways. This difficulty can lead to excessive defiant behavior. An October 2012 article in the journal PLoS One reported Carnegie Mellon University researchers' findings that children with autism often do not recognize improper social behavior and cannot say why it is not appropriate. Their study showed that children without autism used language areas of the brain to determine if a child in a picture was behaving badly, while the children with autism did not.

Severely Defiant Behavior

In some cases, children with autism may display severely defiant behavior, which may be diagnosed as oppositional defiant disorder. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fourth Edition, describes ODD as “negativistic, defiant, disobedient and hostile behaviors toward authority figures.”

Children with this condition may refuse to follow rules, easily lose their tempers and have temper tantrums, and argue often. They also may not take responsibility for their own mistakes. These children have difficulty getting along with others, so their friendships may be short-lived or nonexistent. More severe behavior of this type may be categorized as conduct disorder.


Aggression and irritability often are found in children with autism. In a 2012 study of 435 children diagnosed as having autism, Dr. Susan Mayes -- a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Pennsylvania State University -- and her colleagues found that 92 percent of the children were described by their parents as irritable, moody and uncooperative. Forty percent of the children met the criteria for a diagnosis of ODD.

Children with autism who are aggressive may be incorrectly diagnosed has having bipolar disorder. There are other criteria beyond aggression for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and most children with autism do not meet these criteria.


Defiant behavior in children with autism can be treated with medication, behavior modification or a combination of the two. Only a physician or a psychiatrist may determine which medication or combinations of medications should be used. Behavior modification can be used to help children understand their emotions and how to appropriately express them.

Patient Guidance

It is important to remain calm when dealing with a defiant child. Be clear and consistent, so that your child will understand that his behavior is unacceptable. Try not to take the behavior personally. Keep in mind that the child needs to be taught to control his behavior. Set limits, and follow through.

About the Author

Karen Doyle has been a writer since 1993, covering finance, business, marketing and parenting. Her work has been published in "Kidding Around" and "A Cup of Comfort." Doyle holds a bachelor's degree in marketing from Boston College.