Careful with that Axe – The Effects of Criticism on Autistic Symptoms

Being a parent of a child with a developmental disorder has to be one of the most stressful and challenging of all human experiences. Looking after someone afflicted with such a disorder is difficult not only because of the direct symptoms of the disorder but also because of the indirect effects that come around and aggravate the symptoms. For instance, a child with ASD is likely to experience some negativity at school, and this negative affect of his peers can worsen pre-existing maladaptive behavior, making things even harder for a caregiver. However, what we might not always stop to consider is how a parent or caregiver might be responsible for the irregular behavior in those who suffer from the range of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Several research studies convincingly suggest that behavior problems in children with ASD are more likely to be a function of parent stress, rather than symptoms of the disorder itself. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Vanderbilt University studied the relationship between maternal criticism and behavior problems in individuals with ASD over a seven-year period. “Caregiver criticism” or negativity from one’s parents or primary caregivers is not a rare phenomenon. Indeed, all parents rely on some amount of negative behavior or criticism in order to coax their children to accept responsibility for their actions and consequently learn that they are in control of their own behavior. This sort of behavior is even more pronounced among the families of children with autism spectrum disorders. The difficult behavior of people with ASD implies greater amounts of stress in the primary caregiver, which in turn results in a greater amount of negativity towards their children. Unfortunately, whether a child has a developmental disorder or not, negative affect from one’s parents in response to undesirable behavior is likely to result in a heightening of those very behaviors. One can imagine the spiraling tendencies this might have when raising a child with ASD.

Therapeutic techniques for dealing with ASD appear to further complicate the problem as these usually rely on teaching the individual how to bring his or her behavior under his own control and are effective in doing so. This is exactly the result parents want to elicit when they are critical of their child’s behavior. However, parental criticism is unlikely to be effective in this regard, as it is important to be able to discern which behaviors are the symptoms of the disorder itself, and which are elicited by the individual’s own frustration with the lack of control he or she is able to exert on his own behavior. The researchers emphasize the importance of knowing that, while negative criticism is an understandable response to the pressures of raising a child, it must be deployed cautiously when raising a child with ASD. The person with ASD might themselves be frustrated by the lack of control they have over their own behavior and negativity from caregivers is likely to result in even more intolerable levels of frustration for the ASD-sufferer. Criticism can be a tool if used cautiously and sparingly, but a drop of empathy for the sufferer’s situation is always a good indicator of when might be the right time.


Baker JK, Smith LE, Greenberg JS, Seltzer MM, & Taylor JL (2011). Change in maternal criticism and behavior problems in adolescents and adults with autism across a 7-year period. Journal of abnormal psychology, 120 (2), 465-75 PMID: 21319925

Radhika Takru, MA

Radhika Takru, MA, has a Bachelor's Degree with Honors in Psychology, a Postgraduate Degree in Media, and a Masters degree by research on online journalism and perceptions of authority.
See All Posts By The Author