Autism and Accountability: How to Know When to Hold an Autistic Child Accountable

Autism and Accountability

It can be tough to determine those things for which it is okay to hold someone accountable. It can be especially difficult in relationships between autists and neuortypical folks.

Parents ask whether/when, they can hold their autistic child accountable. In response to these questions, I created this post and an “Accountability Checklist.” (You can get the checklist by requesting the password to the FREE Resource Library.)

Knowing what a child is and is not ready for, is challenging. Parents fear asking too much, but they also want to be sure their kids aren’t “playing” them.

Making it more confusing, there are some days that holding a child accountable is ok and some days it’s not. This is especially true if other health issues are present. (You can read my post, “Comorbidity: Life with Autism and Its Closest Friends,” to learn more.)

Figuring out which type of day you are having can feel like a coin toss.

The issue of accountability is present in most contexts. Chores, homework, relationships, etc., all provide battlegrounds for disagreements about accountability.

It’s one of those issues that you don’t think about until faced with it. Once faced with it, it can seem super complicated.

Let’s make it super simple! As you read through the steps below, don’t forget that I made a checklist for you to make this as easy as possible! It’s in the FREE Resource Library!

Are You Okay?

The first question is whether YOU are okay.

People frequently try to hold others accountable when they:

  • have lost control.
  • are not okay.
  • don’t want to be held accountable themselves.

If you fit this description, it’s probably not the time to start holding others accountable.

A little self-love may in fact be the order of the day.

The first thing that you need to do is to address your own issues. Once that is done, everything seem better and the issue at hand may seem more manageable.

Is Your Child Okay?

Likewise, you want to make sure your child is okay before jumping in with both feet. If not, it’s probably not a right time to hold them accountable.

Stop. Help them regain control (if they are young), or wait until they regain control (if they are older).

Is This the Right Time?

Have you had time to digest and understand the situation?

Do you feel rushed?

We oftentimes think we need to handle problems immediately.

In a world of immediate gratification, we’ve lost sight of the advantages of patience.

Sometimes waiting provides opportunities! Some of these opportunities might include the opportunity to:

  • calm down.
  • consider the facts.
  • gather more information.
  • think through possible solutions and choose the right one.
  • ensure a right environment to address the situation.

Taking the time to choose the right time allows you to set the stage for success! Take advantage of it if you need it!

Is This the Right Environment?

Some things to think about in choosing a right setting:

Are there other people present?

Does the situation allow everyone to share their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives?

Is it quiet?

Does it feel safe?

Never underestimate the power of a right environment!

Do We All Have the Same Set of Facts?

A quick fact check to make sure that everyone agrees on the facts or issue presented is important. In fact, making sure everyone is on the same page is why the first four points are so important.

When we are not okay or when we’re rushed, mistakes are more likely to be made. Feelings are more likely to be hurt. Relationships are more likely to be damaged.

Resolving the issue won’t be easy if you don’t agree on what has happened. Get as close to agreement as possible. This strategy will reduce conflict and pave the way for troubleshooting.

Does the Person to Be Held Accountable Have Actual Knowledge of the Expectations?

Do you KNOW the person you want to hold accountable knows the standard? Have they been given the directions or the information that they need to have to be successful? If not, how can they be expected to succeed?

Put another way, there has to be something to hold them accountable TO. Something about which they KNOW.

For some background here, you can check out the post, “Autism and Socialization: When Socialization is a Conscious Process.” It talks about ensuring we teach kids what we expect them to know before we hold them accountable to it.

Are You Applying the Standard of Accountability – Actual Knowledge?

You need to know that your kiddo knows the expectation, but you also have to make sure you are strictly applying it. Here are some places this could go wrong:

  • Changing the standard after the fact or without communicating the change is a recipe for disaster.
  • Convincing yourself that the standard has been taught when it hasn’t won’t work.
  • Holding someone accountable before they have practiced a skill may be premature.

So you have to set the standard and they you have to properly apply it!

“So How Do I Do This?”

Start by Inquiring

If you don’t know they know whether they know the standard, then ask a question like, “Are you aware…?” or “Did you know…?” or “Have you ever been told…?” Don’t ask them all and don’t ask questions rapid fire. Take your time and get to the bottom of what is known and what is not.

Continue by Teaching

If the answer is “I didn’t know,” start by teaching information needed. Now, if this situation ever arises again, the child can respond appropriately. Perfect!

A SUPER simple example:

If you want your kiddo to load the dishwasher, show them how before asking them to do it. Tell them the ins and outs of loading it. Share issues that may arise, how to make sure the dishes get clean and how much rinsing is required. It can seem sooo simple to load a dishwasher, but that is because you’ve been doing it for so long. When it is new, it takes practice.

If you ask someone who has never loaded a dishwasher to do so without instruction, expect that it won’t go well. I would suggest here that holding that person accountable would be wrong. Holding yourself accountable for teaching the skill would be a better.

A tougher example:

Knowing whether kids know how to treat others can be a big challenge. Knowing whether a child knows the standard can be even more difficult to determine. Still, trust in the relationship that allows open communication can get you a long way.

We skip over this step of teaching children information. Why? Becasue we we have this concept of socialization. We have these ideas that kids should just know stuff. They should be able to do things like learn social rules or load dishwashers. And they will probably figure it out eventually, but it goes sooo much faster and smoother when we teach it! An avoided conflict is so much better than a resolved one!

When we expect people to know “stuff” they haven’t been taught, we open the door to harming that person. We may leave them feeling stupid or like less than they are.

Even worse, the person may develop anxiety as they don’t know what they are going to get in trouble for next.

I know I spent much of my childhood afraid that at any moment I may be in trouble for who-knew-what. When my system of rules failed me, I found myself facing the wrath of an adult. Each time, I felt completely taken off guard.

The anxiety that comes from living like this, walking on these egg shells, can be paralyzing.

Sound familiar?

It Holds Us as Parents Accountable

I want to make one more point here: This standard holds us accountable as parents. Requiring that we teach a skill prevents us from blaming on others what is our fault. Remember the dishwasher? If we tell someone to load it and don’t show them how, the fault is our own when the dishes get broken or don’t come out clean. We are the ones to be held accountable! In fact, we may owe our kiddo an apology!

Remember the business analogy from the socialization post mentioned above? The standard of training every employee places responsibility on the employer.

Which brings us back to the importance of the first point that YOU, are okay and willing to be held accountable.

More than once, I have failed my kids in this regard and had to explain to them that the failure was mine not theirs. Not easy as a parent, but necessary and what a life lesson – for all involved.

How Much Accountability Do We Assign?

If the answer is “yes” that the person has actual knowledge, what do you do? The next step is to assess the degree to which they should be held accountable.

There are factors I consider:

  • How much do they know?
  • What is their age?
  • How were they taught?
  • How long has it been?
  • Was it easily applied to this context or situation?
  • Had they fully learned the lesson, or are they still learning it? (Keep in mind that teaching a child is a process not an event.)
  • Was supervision required, and was it provided? Was the supervision provided enough supervision?

Only afte this assessment will I hold another person, or even myself, accountable.

What Does It Look Like to Hold Them Accountable?

Wow, there are as many ways to hold someone accountable as there people to hold accountable.

Begin with giving praise for those things that are praiseworthy wherever possible.

Yes, praise.

Accountability should include the good as well as the teachable.

It is about learning and responsibility. It is about personal growth and the growth of relationships.

Children need 3-6 positives for every negative. I see no reason why that would be any different in this context. Teaching our children, holding them accountable, is part of our relationship with them. If done well, we build and strengthen that relationship.

Doing so will teach them the value of their contribution and lift their self-esteem.

Accountability becomes an honorable rite of passage to which your child can aspire.

Here Are Some Ideas:

In the context of chores, accountability could look like any of the following:

  • Praise for a good first (early) effort.
  • Help completing or tidying the outcome.
  • Have the child repeat the chore by themselves after discussing how to improve.
  • Ask the child what they think and how they think they could improve. Allow them to redo the task implementing their own suggestions.

In the context of relationships, accountability may take one of the following forms:

  • Discuss what happened. Ask the child how she felt. Ask how she thinks others felt or point out how they may have felt. Discuss what could have been done differently.
  • Identify steps going forward that could be used so that the issue does not arise again. When unsafe people are involved, this may include avoidance. (For more on this point, check out my post, “My GREATEST Struggle with Autism: Identifying Safe People.”
  • Praise the good things you observe in your child’s handling of their relationships.
  • In all contexts, give children avenues and paths to seek out and use help when they need it.

As you go through this process over and over, your kids will come to trust it. They will see that it is okay to make mistakes and even to fail. Kids who know it is okay to fail, that they will have chances to try again, may achieve more than we ever expected.

So you can hopefully see that I am not much of a punisher. In my early days of parenting I was. I hated it. It didn’t get us, well, anywhere. Teaching, that got us to the finish line. Time and time again.

That is not to say we were perfect. They could tell you stories! But it is to say that we tried at all times to put relationships and learning first.

This process even helped me have more reasonable expectations for myself. THAT was totally unexpected!!


Everyone doen’t bring the same skills and knowledge to the table. Heck, we don’t even all experience the world in the same way. We have to go through the process of working through these issues.

Clear communication requires actual communication.

Holding our kiddos accountable starts with holding ourselves accountable. It continues with clear communication. It culminates in our kiddos learning about life and their value to us and to the world.

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Autism and Accountability

Autism and Accountability