Embarrassing Behavior and Children with Autism


embarrassingEvery once in a while parents are exposed to embarrassing situations due to their child’s behavior. Some may make very honest and factual remarks, such as pointing to a person next to you in line and claiming, “she’s fat!” Moments like this can be very uncomfortable but fortunately do not occur often, but the risk of this may be higher if you are a parent of a child with autism.

All children eventually learn how to regulate their behavior and speech but children on the autism spectrum tend to be slower at acquiring this skill. Children with autism experience the same world we live in but in a dramatically different way, which limits their ability to read social situations.

Most children with autism don’t even realize that their behaviors are socially unacceptable and potentially embarrassing to their parents. Some of these behaviors may include:

  • inappropriate touching or invading another’s space,
  • extreme honesty about the appearance of another person,
  • handflapping, spinning or stimming,
  • fascinations with particular objects,
  • extreme displays of affection or the exact opposite.

Some children respond aggressively when least expected and many have sensory issues that produce bizarre reactions to food textures, tastes, light, sound and smells.

Therefore, as a parent of a child on the autism spectrum the possibility of having your child commit a social ‘faux pas’ in public is high. Unfortunately, until we are able create more awareness about autism and minimize the judgmental reactions of others, parents will have to continue to deal with some situations deemed ‘socially inappropriate’ by onlookers. You may experience these occurrences as embarrassing at first, but eventually you may develop a protective armor from the piercing looks of disgruntled onlookers that just don’t understand. In the meantime, what can a parent do?

Finding ways to minimize or prevent the number of embarrassing incidents that might occur is one option. Here are some strategies to consider that might help.

  1. Remember, you are your child’s best teacher. Your child may be receiving therapies that work on building appropriate social skills but you are with your child 24/7. Don’t overlook behaviors in the home that could be potentially embarrassing when out and about. IF you want to shape your child’s behaviors, address them as they occur by explaining why they may be off-putting to others and “show” them what to do instead.
  2. Appeal to the way your child’s brain works best. Most children on the autism spectrum are very visual so use pictures, photos, lists or video modeling to communicate with your child. Some may respond better to auditory input, so make a recording for your child with step-by-step instructions for them to listen to. Other children may need to be physically manipulated by taking their hand and demonstrating just how much pressure to apply to petting an animal or touching a person.
  3. Be persistent. Constant repetition and reinforcement will eventually work to instill more suitable behaviors in your child. It typically takes twenty-one repetitions of an action before a new behavior becomes a habit. A brain that is wired differently may take more time – so start early, practice often and have patience.
  4. Use distraction. Plan ahead when going out in public and bring a bag of tricks with you to divert your child’s attention when your gut begins sending you a warning that something potentially embarrassing might occur. Fill a backpack with stress relievers and favorite items that will quickly catch your child’s interest.
  5. Give people information. If all else fails, be prepared with a short statement to say to others that will enlighten them. Some parents carry around cards that explain their child’s behavior and may even provide suggestions for being helpful. Some even include a few websites that educate people about autism.
  6. Ignore onlookers. It takes time to build up the confidence, courage and a secure sense-of-self necessary to disregard the gawkers and disapproving stares that you and your child may encounter. Begin building your protective armor by forcing yourself to focus on your child and what he or she needs at these times. Tending to and connecting to your child in the moment may be all that is needed to calm her anxiety and reverse the situation.
  7. Be prepared. Your child really needs you to respond calmly and authentically in these moments. Getting upset at others will only increase the stress felt by all. Try creating a mental mantra to recite in circumstances such as these that would reassure you and help you concentrate on what is most important – your child.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself after an episode such as this. Remember that every child has the potential to call attention to themselves or fall apart and every parent has the capacity to handle it inappropriately at times. Tell yourself you did the best you could and use it as a learning experience to gain insight about what you might do differently the next time.

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What do you do when all the forces of the universe come together to make your life as a parent more challenging than you would like it to be? How are you able to let the scornful look of others roll off your back?

If you have a secret weapon for dealing with embarrassing situations, please share your strategies here.



  1. Brett says:

    fantastic post!!! We especially found the sections outlining “Be persistent” and “Give people information,” valuable and informative. Persistence is challenging and tiring but can always yield the best results with individuals on the spectrum. Informing others not only helps others understand certain challenges different individuals have to overcome but also can further parents knowledge of different situations. Thank you for a great post and keep up the great work.

  2. Connie says:

    I appreciate the positive and affirming feedback. Glad you see the importance and usefulness of persistence and giving people information. Have a wonderful day!

  3. Really great advice. As a private college counselor, I have worked with autistic teens who have had wonderful parents who followed many of your suggestions. Most autistic children can be successful in life in spite of the fact that there are always some challenges they will face. The more we understand about autism, the better we can help these children succeed.

  4. Bonnie Murphy says:

    Excellent post! Think it is important as a parent of any child to remember that your child isn’t a reflection of yourslef. They are individuals who you have been given the blessing by God to raise, but in the end they are their own person and will carve out their own personalities. This includes our little angels who are on the Autism Spectrum.

    Don’t get me wrong, these situations are so “stunning to deal with” at times, but honestly I have gone through the same things with my children not on the spectrum and learned to accept the core belief I state above: my children are their own individual selves, not a reflection of me. However it is my responsibility to teach them to be respectful of others and not allow them to impede on others rights to exist peacefully in this world.

    Each one of my children have reacted differently to learning basic societal basic rules and manners. Your point of using visuals, was the approach I took for my daughter on the spectrum, it worked very well for her, coupled with reinforcing empathy. She had empathy all along, it just needed to be connected in ways she could relate, another point you made – understanding how your child thinks.

    Last never allowing your children to use any condition as an excuse for being out of control, rude and not in compliance while out in public has worked well with me. We are actually at the point where we can tell our daughter “Honey we don’t have time right now for a meltdown but you can have one at 3 p.m. ok?” Just her knowing that she can still have one but has to schedule it….works for her. Funny thing is, I go and remind her of the time, “Michelle it is 3 p.m., I promised you that you could have a meltdown, just reminding you and thanks for working with me on this!” She has yet to take me up on actually having one. Now at home, I am not so strict, because they do need to get their frustrations out but I do have a rule on this too, she has to excuse herself from the rest of the family and go to a quiet place and have her meltdown. She can join rest of family when she has composed herself. She is 15, so this is more age appropriate, I don’t see this working for younger kids.

    Thanks again for amazing post!

  5. Connie says:

    Thank you Susie for your positive comments and your positive outlook. Children with Autism can most definitely succeed, especially when we take the time to truly understand – the key to all enlightenment!

  6. Connie says:

    Thank you, Bonnie. You are right – NO ONE would ever wish embarrassing situations like this upon themselves, or others, but we need to be prepared for the possibility. I am glad to know that visuals worked for you and I appreciate your affirmation that children often have the ability to act appropriately but they simply need “to be connected in ways (they) she can relate”. The ability to connect with a child in every aspect of their being to help them unlock their power is one of the most important things we can do as parents.
    I also LOVE your tactic of giving permission to a child to express her or him self at prescribed times – a very old therapeutic technic. Granted this will not work when a child’s system is really in overload but it will curtail the possibility of any type of learned behavior that might be slightly manipulative. Sometimes children just want to know that someone validates their feelings or their need to unload.

  7. Bob Davis says:

    I never take responsibility for someone elses reaction to my autistic sons’ approach and only appologize when I think the invasion of someone elses space has been put upon their natural defense mechanism. Most the time most people understand and actually give back to you some empathetic response that says “its ok, he is doing nothing wrong” and actully engage in conversation that helps melt down the connection my son looks for. This then helps me feel that this social moment is a contribution to educating the public; because my son is very much in the community, he feels part of it and looks forward to the next encounter.

  8. Connie says:

    What a positive way to look at it – an opportunity to educate. I am glad to hear you actually find some people to be helpful. Many of the parents I work with report glares and stares or negative comments coming from observers. You say “Most the time most people understand and actually give back to you some empathetic response…”. If I were to ask you to guess why your experience was overall a more positive one, what might be your reply?

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