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

It can be hard to know when to hold an autistic or mentally… #parentingandautism #discipline #autisminchildren #girlsandautism

Autism and Accountability

It can be really 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 – for both parties to the relationship.

I get a lot of questions from parents about whether/when, they can hold their mentally ill or autistic child accountable. In response to these inquiries, I created this post and also an “Accountability Checklist” to help you implement it! You can get the checklist by requesting the password to the Free Resource Library below.

Knowing what a child is and is not ready for, providing challenges without overdoing, and ensuring that opportunities to manipulate away from responsibility are prevented are all the more challenging in this context.

In addition, there are some days that holding a child accountable is ok and some days it is not. This is especially true if additional health issues are present. (You can read my post on “Comorbidity: Life with Autism and Its Closest ‘Friends.'”)

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

Holding a child accountable comes up in virtually every context from completing chores/homework to relationship issues and everything in between.

It is 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?

I think the first and threshold question is whether YOU are okay.

My observation is that people frequently want to hold others accountable for something because they have lost control, are not okay, or don’t want to be held accountable themselves.

Ruling these things out can pave the way for a smoother interaction.

If you have lost control, are not okay, or are working to avoid accountability it’s really 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 get yourself under control which will make everything seem better.

Is Your Child Okay?

Likewise, if the child you want to hold accountable is not in control or is not okay right in this moment, it’s probably not a right time to hold them accountable.

The first thing that you need to do is help them regain control (if they are a young child), or wait until they regain control themselves (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, a NOW society, we have lost sight of the advantages of waiting to pursue a course of action.

Sometimes waiting provides opportunities to calm down, consider the facts, gather more information, think through possible solutions and choose the right one. In addition, waiting until the right time, can provide the opportunity to ensure the right environment.

Is This the Right Environment?

If you’re not in a right environment to actually have a discussion about accountability maybe patience is what is needed. Waiting to properly set the stage benefits open and transparent communication

Some things to think about:

  • Are there other people present?
  • Does the situation allow everyone to share their thoughts and feelings and perspectives?
  • Is it quiet?
  • Does it feel safe?

Having a right environment in which to pursue accountability will further increase the odds of success.

Do We All Have the Same Set of Facts? Is There Agreement?

A quick fact check to ensure that everyone agrees on the facts or issue presented is also of critical importance. 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 are rushed, mistakes are more likely to be made.

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

Do you KNOW the person you want to hold accountable has been explicitly given the directions or the information that they need to have in order to be held accountable.

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

Are You Applying the Standard of Accountability (My Own Term) – Actual Knowledge?

From the experience of trying consciously to learn the rules of society that society thinks I should have learned unconsciously, and from the many failures that resulted, I developed a rule I apply when I work with kids – any kids:

I do not ever hold a kiddo (significant other, parent, sibling, friend, etc.,) accountable unless I have said to them, or I absolutely know that they are consciously aware/knowledgeable about that which I want to hold them accountable.

I ensure they know the material, the standard, the expectation before accountability is required.

It is a Safety Net

This rule provides the other person with a safety net in the sense that inquiry about behavior or actions begins with an inquiry as to whether they knew or should have known in such a way that holding them accountable is appropriate.

Start by Inquiring

If I don’t know they know whether they know, then I’m going to ask, “Are you aware? Did you know? Have you ever been told?”

Continue by Teaching

If the answer is “no,” I start not with accountability, but by teaching information needed so that if this situation ever arises again, the child can respond appropriately.

A SUPER simple example: I would never hold anyone responsible for a task, say loading the dishwasher, until I know they have been shown how. A tougher example, knowing how to treat others in certain contexts can be really challenging and knowing whether a child knows the expectation or standard can be even more difficult to determine. Still, trust in the relationship that allows open communication can get you a long way.

I think what commonly happens is that we skip over this step of explicitly teaching children information and assume, because we have this concept of socialization we believe is unconscious, that they should just know “stuff” they have never been taught.

When we expect people to know “stuff” they have never been taught, we actually open the door to harming that person, or worse, to making them feel stupid or like less than they are.

Even worse, we open the door to cause tremendous anxiety as the person may come to feel like they do not know what they are going to get in trouble for next, because just like they had no idea the present situation was coming, they do not what will come next.

Sound familiar?

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, or when I prioritized the rules incorrectly, I frequently would find myself facing the wrath of an adult and would feel completely off guard.

The anxiety that comes from living like this, walking on these egg shells, can be nothing short of paralyzing.

It Holds Us as Parents Accountable

I just want to make one more point here – when we allow a standard that doesn’t require that we teach people before we hold them accountable, it opens the door to poor behavior on our part because it opens the door for us to place the blame on someone else when really that blame is ours for not having taught the lesson, standard or expectation.

Remember the business analogy from the socialization post mentioned above? The standard of training each and every employee places responsibility on the employer, not just the employee.

In instances where this is true, that we are holding an individual accountable for that which they do not reasonably know, we maybe are the ones who should be held accountable and maybe even owe the individual before us an apology.

Which brings us back to the importance of the first point that YOU, the person seeking to hold someone else accountable are okay and willing 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.

There is an enormous amount of danger here in allowing that we can hold someone accountable for something they haven’t yet learned – that we haven’t taught.

I am using words like taught, because I most often hear this type of debate in the context of parents and children, but maybe a more appropriate word would be “communicated” in the context of other relationships.

How Much Accountability Do We Assign?

If the answer is yes that the person has actual knowledge, the next step is going to be to try 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 in the process of 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 after administering this assessment will I hold another person, or even myself, accountable.

It is not too late to get the “Accountability Checklist” just request the password to the Free Resource Library below!

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.

In each of the items below, 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.

We have all seen the articles indicating that children need 3-6 positives for every negative. I see no reason why that would be any different in this context. After all, teaching our children and holding them accountable is part of our relationship with them, and if done well, will build and strengthen that relationship.

In addition, doing so will teach your child the value of their contribution and uplift their self-esteem. 

In that way, accountability becomes an honorable rite of passage to which you and 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.
  • Assistance completing or tidying the outcome.
  • Require the child repeat the chore independently after a discussion of what could be done differently or how the outcome could be improved.
  • 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 relationship issues, accountability may take any of the following forms (or many others as well!):

  • 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 implemented to restore or strengthen a relationship so that the issue does not arise again. When unsafe people are involved, this may include avoidance.
  • In instances where relationships are handled well, acknowledge all of the good things you observed or experienced in your child’s behavior and communication.
  • In all contexts, give children avenues and paths to seek out and use assistance when they need it. Even the most independent, confident child can be most successful when using resources to move forward.

Kids who have been given explicit permission to try big things knowing it is okay to fail or that help is available will sometimes accomplish more than we expect.

So you can hopefully see here that I am not much of a punisher. Except in the instance of safety issues, I never much punished my kiddos.

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.


From the days that I saw a wrong behavior and trounced all over it to the days where I implemented this system and considered these factors, I saw a shift from frustration and anger to learning, growth, and peace.

Yeah, peace.

Managing accountability this way resulted in a shift in my relationships. I started to see these relationships grow. What was totally unexpected was that it helped me to have reasonable expectations for myself.

Understanding that others do not bring to the table the same knowledge, skills, or even experience the world in the same way you do makes understandable the need to ensure that everyone is on the same page before people are held accountable.

Taking the time to think through these points also provides opportunities to avoid missteps and mistakes.

Clear communication requires actual communication.

While this article is about holding children with autism accountable, holding them accountable starts with us holding ourselves accountable. It continues with clear and explicit communication and culminates in teaching our kiddos about life and their value to us and the world.

A quick note: I always say I won’t use pictures that portray autism negatively, but this little kiddo looks like she is having the BEST time! I think this artwork maybe deserves a stern talking to and a frame. 🙂

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