The Oppositional Defiant Disorder trap: how schools and doctors ignore autism

ODD Diagnoses are a cover-up for bad interventions.


Across the state of West Virginia, we are working with wonderful children and teens with autism diagnoses, who, when stressed and angry, act out in intense ways.

Schools, doctors and other clinicians are labeling these children with ODD – Oppositional Defiant Disorder – instead of recognizing that these are kids on the autism spectrum, and that one defining feature of autism is struggling with communication.  For the higher functioning kids and teens, this struggle can mean not knowing how to communicate in the healthiest ways when upset or in stress!  (and how many of us communicate well when stressed????)  Sadly, teachers, administrators, and other clinicians start punishing stressed kids and teens, making the problem worse.  Stressed kids on the autism spectrum need SUPPORT, not punishment.

When your child or teen on the autism spectrum starts mouthing off, this is a sign of stress…  and your child or teen needs your help (or a teacher’s help) calming down.  At school, we highly recommend frequent time-out breaks for all ages:  for younger students this can be time in the classroom quiet area (which you can demand your classrooms include), and for teens we recommend a quiet break to re-group reading or online in the media center (put frequent breaks into your IEP).  At home, mouthiness is a sign your child or teen needs rest – a break from people and chores or homework, an earlier bed, a chance to unwind.  Think about time online, time reading books, time with arts and crafts or Minecraft.

The worst thing to do with a teen or child on the spectrum who is winding up and getting more upset is to confront and challenge them!  This is when things get out of hand – parents start making threats they can’t enforce; schools start threatening detention and expulsion; clinicians start suggesting meds or more restrictive environments.  If you are an adult and you find yourself getting upset and angry with your kid on the spectrum, then this is a sign that things are out of hand and since you are the adult YOU NEED TO BACK OFF.

If we want our children of any age to learn to be flexible people, then we ourselves need to meet their stress with flexibility.  Let your child finish a chore later; let your child unwind with a netflix video; give everyone a break from homework and come back to it – together – later.  And if schools can’t be flexible, it may be time for you as parent to demand another IEP meeting.

Oppositional defiance disorder is no excuse for adults who can’t support people with autism diagnoses  – whether that human is four years old or sixteen.  Parents need to stand up for their children and teens, and create safe spaces so kids on the autism spectrum get the room to grow and thrive and learn just like everyone else.

Watch out of ODD diagnoses.  If you need interventions, and your school or doctor is refusing to work with you, GET HELP.  Find a clinician or teacher who is trained in positive behavioral supports and get an ally for you and your child.  Build more family quiet time into your day, and get an IEP that supports your child.  Children and teens on the autism spectrum need help learning how to communicate effectively.  If they aren’t getting that help, don’t let professionals use any diagnostic label to cover up the real interventions your child needs.

We have worked with families and schools around West Virginia, helping classrooms include appropriate quiet areas and getting mandatory breaks for students, as well as helping families build stress-busting activities into their day.  If you need help, please contact us; we wanna support you and your family.

Those Falling Apart Days

Every parent knows the feeling. Your teen is surly and refuses to do homework…. your two year old is throwing toys and spitting… the laundry needs done and the house is a wreck and everyone is stressed out!

You know… THOSE days.

It’s always hardest to parent when you see your child or teen starting to spin out of control. Inside it is so easy to think about how you are tired and had hoped to come home to an easy evening or spend a nice day home with the family. And then chaos hits.

Time to take a break and think about stressbusters now, before the surly teen is cursing and the two year old breaks the remote, again. Stress in the family means parents must pull back, calm down, and take a breath. If you are losing it and your kids are losing it then everyone needs to find soothing and relaxing activities. High stress means time to rest, to relax, to let you and your children and teens unwind.

Here are some great ideas:

Get OUTSIDE. Even if it is raining, grab umbrellas, pull on boots, layer up on many sweatshirts, and head outside. Fresh air and oxygen help everyone unwind.

STICK to YOUR SCHEDULE. If kids eat breakfast at 8:00, get everyone mixing and stirring so food is on-time. If 10:00 is art time, plan some soothing goop activities. If 6:30 is homework time, plan on sitting together with your child or teen and calmly doing the work. Schedules help everyone feel safe, calm, predictable.

SENSORY ACTIVITIES. This is how you soothe yourself (do you like a bath? a cup of coffee? chewing gum? Your favorite music? You use sensory activities, too!) Make goop for little ones or get teens punching out pizza dough. Put on music that everyone likes, or go for some blessed silence. If you have multiple kids with multiple needs, make sure everyone (INCLUDING YOU) gets a little of what you each need. And push for bathtime early – for you, your teen, yourself. Water is a great soother.  Check out our homemade recipes on this page!

CALM Television time. Ok, usually when we work with families we turn off television sets all the time. But when stress is high, put on that favorite episode of Barney or Star Trek and relax. Watch something you have seen a million times, and know every song or line of dialogue. Repetition is relaxing. Pop popcorn. Turn the lights down. Who doesn’t unwind when Captain Picard takes on the Borg one more time?

BREATHE. With little ones it is easy to bundle them into our laps and read books. With teens try to slow your breathing down when they are stressed and notice how much this is catching! If your teen allows it, try some backrubs. Stand next to your teen, shoulder to shoulder, which is a subtle reminder that you are a team.

CALL for HELP!  When kids lose it and you are not coping, it can be hard to work out a solution.  Then you need help!  Don’t wait until windows are breaking or you are ready to cry yourself to sleep!  Call friends, family, therapists, religious leaders…   Kids with special needs are a parenting challenge, whether the special need is related to giftedness, different abilities, or developmental delays.   Asking for help is what makes the difference for your child – and it will help the whole family, as well.


And finally, REMEMBER:

Ideally, we all want to become independent self-soothers, and manage and calm ourselves. But really isn’t family ultimately about the fact that we need one another? I lose it when appliances break and I need support. Our teens lose it from overwhelming school days, and they need us – STILL – for support. Our little ones can’t soothe themselves, but as we help them they learn how.

Stressful times actually define what families are. Anyone can do family and parenting when life is easy. When it is hard, that is when parents matter most. So remember when the sink plugs up and your teen is refusing to take out the trash and your five year old threw books out the window….

This is the time that makes you a family.