What Happens When My Autistic Child Acts Differently at Home Than at School


My son is going through a difficult time. This morning my husband carried him to his taxi, kicking and screaming. He was stressed, and I was anxious and worried.

I haven’t called the school and asked if he is OK because I know what they will say: “He is not like that in school.”

Reports from school don’t marry with the child at home at all. In school he conforms, is settled and appears happy. At home he can be violent, unpredictable and highly distressed. The great divide between home and school is a challenge.

When my autistic child behaves differently in school, it makes me feel like I am to blame for his meltdowns at home.

When the common denominator for the challenging behavior and meltdowns is home, it is all too easy for professionals and schools to jump to the conclusion that “bad parenting” is at work. We are accused of lack of discipline, lack of stability, lack of structure, feeding our children the wrong food and even not loving them enough. But just because a child has the ability to “hold it together” in a controlled environment all day and releases the lid on their frustrations, stresses and anxieties at home does not mean home life is awful. In fact the opposite is true. If a child did not feel secure, loved and safe at home, he would likely continue to “hold it together” for fear of releasing his true feelings.

Instead of blaming parents, schools and professionals should be more understanding of the difference between home and school and more willing to listen when a child is behaving differently outside the school gates.

When my autistic child is different in school it makes accessing support challenging.

So many parents know their child needs support but continually get denied services due to presentation within a school setting. It is frustrating and damaging for so many children who put on a front within the classroom but who inside are screaming out for help. The system is loaded too much to the side of education. A referral put in from a school may be readily accepted, yet a parent’s request for the same service is often refused. There is still the assumption that if a child truly had challenges, these would manifest in all settings in the same way. So parents and children get left with little support, and hundreds of children fall through the system because they are “good” in school. Perhaps if schools were more aware of stresses within the classroom environment — like noise, lights and the stress of conforming all day — for children with sensory sensitivities, they may be more willing to support referrals.

When my autistic child is different in school, it appears I am lying.

I have been at the meeting when all eyes are on me, and I know they think I am lying or at best exaggerating. I should never have to do it, but I have resorted to videos and photographs of my child at times to prove what I say actually happened. When I mention strategies we have out in place to help support my child at home and how these are not working some days, people once again assume I am lying. It makes parents feel alone, belittled and unworthy. We already feel like we are failing our child, and those feeling are just made worse when schools give more and more examples of wonderful behavior at school in answer to every incident at home. He showed aggression at home but shared his pencils with another child in school the same afternoon. He had a meltdown over homework yet got full marks in his spelling test the same day. It can be the same child. The sooner professionals and schools understand this, the better for everyone. Have they never been professional and polite to someone in their job only to go home and let off steam by moaning at their husband or shouting at a driver who cuts them off?

Our children are complex and confused, and yet they soon learn where they can “explode” and where they can’t. Sometimes their triggers are only home-related, and this must be accepted. Just because you have never seen the child react like that in the environment you see them in, does not mean the parent is lying.

I know what it is like to see my child happy, flappy and full of delight. I also know how hard it is for him and myself to see him so distressed he cannot control what he is doing.

Put me in different environments, like an interview, a prison, a party or a vacation, and you will see me change to suit my environment. My child on the autism spectrum is no different.

I need people to see this and understand.

Image via Thinkstock.

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