Parental Alienation – Or is it? Misrepresentation of Autistic Behaviours

Gavel Alienation Syndrome — The Parent/Child Disconnect

The above article totally ignores the potential for autism and possible resultant family dynamics in that situation. I will discuss just one scenario where this could be misused against a parent in an autism family.

Imagine if you will, a dad who for a variety of reasons does not accept his child could have autism. It could be that the mother sees the behaviours in an undiagnosed child, but the dad resists accepting the possibility. It could be that the child is diagnosed, but the dad does not accept the child’s differences or understand the condition. Some of the reasons this might occur is ego-based, fear, or even that the dad has autism himself so the child’s behaviours seem typical to him.

A quick Google will tell you that this problem is quite widespread.

I will quote some paragraphs from the above document and if you are an autism parent, you will see quickly, how dangerous this could be to you in an acrimonious separation situation.

2. Weak, Frivolous, and Absurd Rationalizations
When alienated children are questioned about the reasons for their intense hostility toward the targeted parent, the explanations offered are not of the magnitude that typically would lead a child to reject a parent. These children may complain about the parent’s eating habits, food preparation, or appearance.

That could have been written about an autistic child. What seems very minor or inconsequential to a neurotypical person can be hugely magnified to an autistic one. Autistics also focus on the details, so they will notice lots of little things and it will look to others like they are being disproportionate. A disgruntled father, who is lashing out at the mother and looking for blame, will of course cite this as a sign of unreasonableness and insist the mother has turned the child against them over a period of time or raised the child wrongly.

5. Absence of Guilt About the Treatment of the Targeted Parent
Alienated children typically appear rude, ungrateful, spiteful, and cold toward the targeted parent, and they appear to be impervious to feelings of guilt about their harsh treatment. Gratitude for gifts, favors, or child support provided by the targeted parent is nonexistent. Children with parental alienation syndrome will try to get whatever they can from that parent, declaring that it is owed to them.

Lowered empathy coupled with anxiety and stress can override what may seem logical reactions. An autistic child does not mean to be rude, but can be focused on those aforementioned minor details and not remember to thank, can be blunt and may focus on the negatives because the way the autistic mind thinks, there is no need to mention the positives as they don’t need resolving. Literalness can also mean that an autistic child views the role of the parent as a job, so that they must do certain things to be performing it correctly – that doesn’t mean they don’t love their parent. Stress can give rise to negative comments which the child may not perceive as mean due to low empathy. Autistic children can release some stress through complaining.

8. Rejection of Extended Family
Finally, the hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so are his or her extended family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are suddenly and completely avoided and rejected.

An autistic child may feel stressed at spending time with extended family members, especially if they don’t see them regularly, because it upsets their routine. Additionally, if those family members also don’t understand autism or don’t accept the child has autism, they will not be bearing in mind the specific needs of the child when they spend time with them, which can make the child feel uncertain and stressed. They are used to spending time with a mother that intuits their needs and is used to their whims. It can be a terrifying place to be plonked with family members who don’t respond the same way. If an autistic child has low danger awareness and the extended family members do not supervise accordingly, that can be a sticking point between the mother and the relatives, based on a very valid concern. That does not mean the parent is being obstructive or turning the child against relatives and if the father or his relatives don’t understand autism, it’s all too easy to assume the worst about the mother when she is entirely innocent.

If the child resists being taken out alone by the father, he might make assumptions that the mother is poisoning the child’s mind against him. But there are all sorts of reasons why the autistic child may resist spending time alone with the father that are nothing to do with the mother.

Let’s say the dad is one of those who is a real joker, doesn’t take anything seriously and he does not understand autism at all. He insists that if the child wails in protest at his jokes which are taken literally, that the child is exaggerating. If they have what seem to him to be extreme reactions, they are not exaggerating, it is their real experience, because that is how an autistic person processes it. Because of this, he stresses the child and they will only go somewhere with him if the mother goes too – which isn’t possible in the situation, so the child refuses to go. The father blames the mother for this.

Autistic children also can have inappropriate laughter when they are stressed, it’s a form of release of stress, so superficially it appears to the dad that the child is having a great time. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are enjoying a situation. The child may return home very upset and having masked their distress whilst spending time with dad, then throws themselves at the mother complaining of a long list of upsets and say they will not go anywhere with the father again.

If the parents end up in a court situation, especially where social services are involved, the mother may be wrongfully demonised, accused of emotional harm and parental alienation and in a worst case scenario custody could be given to the father. Imagine giving custody to a father who rejects their child’s condition and does not know how to provide for the child’s needs? Any ensuing behavioural problems in the child resulting from this scenario would likely also be blamed on the mother, it would be claimed she had caused emotional damage and the child needed therapy to recover. In fact, in this situation it would be the father who needed therapy to overcome his rejection of the child’s condition and his wrongful anger against the mother that will only interfere with father-child bonding and prevent him being a good father.

The saddest irony, is that the very thing the father in this situation is falsely accusing the mother of, is the very thing that he ends up causing.

It is high time the differences of autism families are understood by all those who are involved with families, to ensure there is no misrepresentation of autism, no wrongful blame and no unjust and harmful interventions, devastating lives.

14 thoughts on “Parental Alienation – Or is it? Misrepresentation of Autistic Behaviours

  1. Please can I speak to you about your concerns. I have a serious professional interest in this area and am working directly with undiagnosed families caught in this conflict before the family court.

    1. Anne, I’m looking for “Nora” in Amy Baker’s Surviving Parental Alienation for a friend. Can you help?

    2. Hello, your comment has for some reason slipped through unnoticed, so apologies for the delay. I believe you have spoken to someone representing The PDA Society, which I hope was useful. You might also find these information sheets useful: “False accusations of fabricated and induced illness against parents” and “The Overdiagnosis & Misdiagnosis of Attachment Disorder” I was thinking that if you want to help make a difference for parents in this predicament, you could run training sessions for social workers, I am happy for you to refer to any of my relevant material. Here is my page on autism assessment and diagnosis (it’s wordy, but there are a lot of useful links there):!your-autism-rights/c1t44 and also for families going through the court process, I would suggest that anything you can do to call a halt on proceedings/reschedule until diagnoses are present is imperative. Without diagnosis it will be a lot harder if not impossible, to access reasonable adjustments they are legally entitled to in the court system and they will suffer discrimination. Examples of this are Equal Treatment Bench Book procedures, case management when a witness or defendant is vulnerable 141215, children and vulnerable adults, witnesses and defendants with autism memory and sensory issues, and others applicable to litigants in person.

  2. I found this post in a google search. We are currently dealing with a situation that I think is exactly as you’ve described. We were convinced this was PAS but the more we try to develop the relationship with my husband and stepson, the more I am not sure. He does have an Asperger’s DX. We are starting therapy with his mother, my husband and 11 stepson that will hopefully repair their relationship. His mother seems supportive of this. Do you have any help or additional guidance (books, websites, etc) that may be helpful? This is really hard and both families are hurting.

    1. I’m sorry there is a struggle with the relationship dynamic. What I think is really important, is that first and foremost you start from the stand point of your stepson’s Asperger’s diagnosis. Expecting anything to be as it would be from a typical child’s perspective is just not going to work. His Asperger’s colours everything in his world, how he sees and experiences everything. Autism spectrum disorder has at it’s core social communication issues, so even when the individual is very intelligent, and even when they appear to respond with a typical answer or reaction, it doesn’t mean their understanding or experience is the same as a neurotypical person’s would be. The brain is just wired differently. I highly doubt from everything you have said there is any PAS going on – in fact I would put money on it as you have said the mother is supportive of the therapy. Is there a chance the mother could be on the autistic spectrum at all? Even if not, often the mother is the person the autistic child feels most secure with, because that mother has brought them up to the relevant point, understanding their every nuance, foible, trigger etc. and the autistic child senses that. That bond may be even greater if the mother has the same neurotype and this will make him adjusting to the new situation that much harder. Your step son will be struggling with change, something most autistics struggle with, changes to environment and routine can be extremely difficult. I truly hope the therapist has a very good autism understanding as otherwise it may be unhelpful and could for your step son even be detrimental. Are you able to check this with the therapist? It’s vital, because otherwise they will be having expectations of your step son that may be too difficult for him or there may be a communication disconnect between him and the therapist. Autistics often respond better to written communication, so you could email or write your stepson a note asking him what he is struggling with and what he would like. Verbal communication is a lot harder, because of things like processing delays that mean real time communication cannot be absorbed adequately. This applies again, no matter how intellectual the person is. He may also have sensory difficulties which are interfering with his functioning. When it comes to books or websites, I don’t know of any, I think I might even be the first person to ever write on this subject! But what you have to remember, is that autism knowledge is key, so read up on autism and then you will start to understand the best way to approach things. His mother might also be able to give some tips. I am sure you are trying to make the relationship between the adults as positive as possible, as you are talking about group therapy. Sometimes it’s about learning the person, rather than looking for articles and research that might explain things for you. They say with autism, you throw out the parenting rule book!

      1. Thank you!! I don’t believe my stepson’s mother is autistic but I believe my husband might be. Despite his DX, she still doesn’t follow the recommendations for weekly therapy. We researched to find a therapist that was specialized in autism and blended family issues. She is supportive of therapy and has begged us for help. We send weekly letters that I post on my blog. He destroys them so she intercepts them. When she tries to review these with him he rages for hours. At this point I am not hopeful that we can improve the relationship with my husband and his oldest son or work on a relationship with myself and his younger siblings. I think our fight is to get him the help that he needs as this is affecting his school and home life. He cannot accept that he has a second family and has not been able to do so in 6 years. He is now physical with his mother and little brother at home and threatening his biological father. I think our job at this point is to get him the help that he needs.

      2. You’re welcome. Another thing to remember is hormones, he will be having hormone surges starting and puberty is a very difficult period for most autistics (even more so than for NTs!). He will be likely to be more dissatisfied, more volatile, struggling with his identity, become more and more aware of his own difficulties. He has a lot going on. Do you think Asperger’s is definitely the correct diagnosis, it might be worth investigating PDA (pathological demand avoidance) as well because sometimes autistics are diagnosed with the wrong sub-type and PDA does need very different approaches to typical ASDs. Here is a link to read up:

        It may be that the mother not taking him to therapy is because he is demand avoidant (as per PDA) and she literally cannot get him to therapy. I assumed he was living with you and your husband but I see now that he appears to live with his birth mother. He may feel a sense of abandonment by his father, which any child could feel when their parents separate/divorce but he may struggle a lot more than an NT child to rationalise it and understand and cope with his own feelings. A really important thing to remember, is that most children with ASD are 3-4 years emotionally and developmentally behind their chronological age. So he would be reacting and absorbing things like a child of around 7-8 if he is 11yo.

        Have a good read up on PDA to see if that throws any light on things, he sounds like he does need specialist help and I wish you all the luck finding resolution of this difficult situation.

  3. You are correct he lives with his stepdad and mother, sorry for the confusion. He has not had a stable upbringing and been enrolled in 6 different schools in 5 years (some times as many as 3 in one year). His mother married a man she knew for 3 months and uprooted him. There are definite abandonment issues with his biological father and idealization of his stepdad (including calling him dad and going by his last name). We are thankful his stepdad is a good man and good role model. My stepson attends weekly counseling sessions with their pastor, so I’m not sure that’s the issue. Thank you for pointing out the hormonal impact as well as emotional/developmental delay. All good points. I’m not sure about PDA but I will read up. Thank you for your help, he definitely has a lot going on and needs all of us to advocate for him.

  4. Hi, I’m the dad and I can relate to this very much. I can’t get access to see my son.
    Physcological report was done and my ex wife is potentially Asperger’s and my son.
    The courts seem to not under stand the situation, how to be realistic. I’m on the spectrum too and think I’m been blinded by frustration of the past 4 years, I do have therapy or I’d given up.
    I been saying for a while I don’t want my son pushed but I want to be his dad to support him through his understanding of the world and I may have to accept there will be a different outcome but barriesters and judges are really not helping. My son does not know I’m his dad I split up from his mum when he was 2 and half. He is 7 is step dad is his dad been his dad since 2 and half. His mum known step dad since they where 10.
    I really would talk to this person to help me understand what you are saying and so I can do the right thing for my son. Thank you.

    1. Hi, sorry for the delay in replying. I am an autistic parent to autistic children and have researched and studied autism for years and also taken some certificates in autism awareness. That’s where my knowledge base comes from. The blog is aimed at when a neurotypical (non-autistic) parent of an autistic child (or indeed the professionals), doesn’t understand the child’s behaviours are not the fault of the parent who has the child, that the behaviours are due to the child’s autism. Unfortunately when parents are in acrimonious custody disputes, they can lose sight of the child’s needs and go into tit-for-tat and accusatory mode. They can make assumptions because of the animosity the parents have towards one another, that the parent is deliberately turning the child against them and trying to keep them apart. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, all possible scenarios can happen at times, but this post is about the behaviours of an autistic child that can be misconstrued. Professionals have no autism awareness, no training, social workers are ignorant about autism. Unfortunately it seems to be quite common that men (dads) refuse to accept their child is autistic, seeing it as a personal attack on their manhood. Ironically, if the dad is autistic himself, this can be a reason too, because he sees the child’s behaviours as normal. So ultimately, what is important is that the child is diagnosed and that all professionals working with the family have full autism awareness, that parent-blaming attitudes stop and that both parents acknowledge the child’s behaviours and the reasons for them, as genuine. All parents should put the needs of the child first, it is the case that often mums are in tune with their child the most and are aware of what upsets the child and what their needs are. But there are bad mums just as there are bad dads. Does this help?

  5. The past three years if my life were just described in this article. Mother to two sons both with autism diagnosis, I resigned my teaching position to be the at home 24/7 caregiver, advocate, and homeschool mom handling all home life duties, the boys education and medical interventions, struggling to provide a idealistic home life. At the age of 23 years old when 6’4″ and 200 pounds now educated and capable of blending despite not living Independently, his father attempting with great success to punish me by abuse by court took custody when all therapists, doctors, family and friends even clergy provided letters of support securing me the conservatorship with exclusive decision-making, to domicile and possession. Escalation of rage linked to ongoing rejection of ultimatums etc a long history of Parental kidnappings five total, and worse acts and his father clueless to actual diagnosis etc and now my son is suicidal.
    I pray for autism families daily. I have added alienation families recently. However the realization of the combination and the likelihood of direct relationship to our current hell is a new concern.
    We have court in the morning. God help me and all of us. This has marked my soul in a way that will never heal.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear this. Just know, that you are not alone. There are thousands of autism families being abused by the system and even by family members. It’s very sad that fathers often reject their child’s autism diagnosis, taking it as a personal affront to their manhood. The levels of stress autism mothers already have (, this just adds another huge weight to the burden of stress. You might also find this post relevant: “Male Ego and Autistic Progeny” and things can be complicated also by the father being an undiagnosed autistic, who doesn’t see anything “wrong” with their child because they had the same behaviours. You mentioned clergy, I strongly recommended praying on this to ask for God’s help.

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