We're all on the autistic spectrum in our family. I only mention it because we work hard in this family to teach good coping skills without using aba skills that gave us lifelong trauma as children. For the most part, everything works out. We created a good sensory environment and generally do things differently than our parents did.

The problem is that our only child doesn't understand or care about boundaries. He walks out of his room naked constantly in front of his aunt even after we repeatedly told him not to do that (it's not a sensory difficulty with clothes because in the house he only wears loose fitting clothing inside out to avoid seams). He seems to think he's playing and tells her that she doesn't need to enforce it because mom is asleep or at work.

There was previous sexual abuse in our family by a stepfather when we were children so she's naturally concerned that he doesn't know how to have boundaries around adults. And he's very physically affectionate without asking. He'll climb all over you and headbutt you if you don't give him attention. Climbing over me without warning is an issue with my trauma and sensory difficulties especially when he climbs on my back and holds onto my neck.

No amount of saying no and telling him to ask first does anything. He also hits and kicks and pulls hair when he doesn't get his way. He already gets in trouble at the playground because he changes rules of games to make himself win quickly and throws a fit if he loses and once another kid said he didn't like him and he kept trying to play with him so the other kid hit him. Obviously we dealt with it but it's at the point where we have to leave when this kid shows up because he still tries to play with him.

This is compounded by the fact that my new boyfriend thinks I'm taking it too seriously because "boys will be boys" but he doesn't understand that these behaviors in autistic adults lead often to incarceration or death if they persist and they often persist in neurotypical boys who grow up to be violent or sexually inappropriate because nobody thinks it's important to teach empathy when they're young, so he undermines all those efforts to teach it.

I just don't know what I can do to teach empathy and boundaries to someone who doesn't understand the concept when everyone undermines my efforts and talks about how cute he is even when he's being badly behaved? We don't spank and we try not to raise our voices (we're not always successful at that last part) but we do remove privileges like screen time. I'm trying to immediately end games if he gets mean about it but my boyfriend thinks it's normal for little boys to be aggressive like that so I get nowhere.

  • 3
    Boys will be boys is probably one of the phrases with the most dire long-term effects both on individuals and society as a whole ever. I encourage you to do a bit of research on the topic and then have a serious discussion with your boyfriend.
    – Stephie
    Jul 14, 2021 at 15:16

2 Answers 2


This is from personal experience growing up as "probably somewhat on the spectrum but not enough to be diagnosed with something", and talking with other people in simular circumstances.

Since you mention teaching empathy, I'd actually recommend putting this off for the time being. We typically teach children empathy but asking them to put themselves in other's shoes; to follow the Golden rule, etc. It is, however, very difficult to make sense of how and why neurotypical people act the way they do, and expecting a five-year old to accomplish this might just be too much. I recall a lot of frustration regarding my own failed attempts as a child. A basic "other people are people, and deserve consideration" as non-negotiable foundation is probably enough for now.

So when it comes to boundaries, don't expect your son to figure them out by himself following some general guidelines. Instead, try to distill it down to a few managable rules that lead to generally acceptable behaviour. Do link these rules back to the ethical foundation above, rather than treat them as something "god-given".

Now one problem you seem to be facing is that your son is learning the rules as something necessary to make you personally happy. That seems like a very natural thing to me, and the best way around this will be if he receives the same message from as many sources as possible. If there is an "Outside of your own room and bathrooms, you need to wear cloths"-rule, then his aunt should remind of this rule (ideally using your precise wording) if there is any violation.

This might be even more important for the "Don't touch other people without their expressed permission"-rule or at least the "Don't climb on other people without their expressed permission"-rule. Such a rule is probably much easier for your son to follow than a "consider their body language, the overall situation, the kind of relationship you are having and their facial microexpression to figure out whether you assume their consent"-rule that we expect most children to adopt. The issue here is that he should be reminded to ask whenever he forgets -- regardless of whether the physical contact is welcome at the moment. It is particularly important that he experiences "asking and receiving permission" to not make him associate "asking" with "being denied".

If your boyfriend is to have any kind of parenting role for your son, he needs to be onboard with how it works. "Boys will be boys" is one of the most aggrevating phrases ever, and it makes me not at all confident that your boyfriend is parenting-material. Sadly, I don't have any ideas on how to enlighten people away from this attitude. My gut reaction is "dump him".


Arno gave some solid advice already, but I'm going to add to it from my own experiences as a child tutor and single mother to my 4-year-old son, and the advice I've received from multiple trusted childcare providers, friends who majored in child psychology, and my therapist who has decades of experience and specializes in working with children who aren't neurotypical.

Another source I've learned a lot from is this article on the Parent Child Coercive Cycle.

Here's what I've learned:

  1. It's vital that you are consistent with rules.
    • If he wants a hug or to climb on someone, we make him ask. If he fails to do it right, we make him start over or deny him. Kids hate the hassle of having to repeat something from the beginning. We also make him say "excuse me" when trying to interrupt a conversation, by ignoring him until he does it and sometimes passively hinting at what he needs to do to get what he wants.
    • We vary the responses, so he doesn't associate asking with rejection. We also occasionally reward when he makes good choices, especially without prompting. Simply letting him choose a sticker to put on his arm goes a long way.
    • Think of it this way... every time you give in, that's 12 more fights you'll have to have with your child to correct the behavior. I don't want my son to think there's any chance that a tantrum might eventually work if he tries long and hard enough. If the screaming gets to be too much for me, I have him "take a break" and sit on his bed with a plushie, water bottle, and soft music until he's calm enough to rejoin us. I keep the door open so he knows it's not a punishment, and I avoid saying "time out." It teaches him healthy coping mechanisms and lets him work through his own feelings.

  1. The other adults in our lives have to be on our side. This means:
    • Absolutely no arguing or dismissing my rules in front of my child.
    • Actively reinforcing my authority. If they don't know what the rule on something is, they should tell my son to ask me first, and they should also practice asking me for permission in front of my son. My roommates are great about this, thankfully.
    • We need to hold our ground on these matters, with friends, family, and especially our significant others. If other adults care about your son, they'll respect your role as his parent, or they simply don't get to be around your son. It's hard, but part of being a parent is receiving constant critique, judgement, opinions you never asked for, and all-around bad advice. Remember, they aren't his parents, you are and if your child ends up suffering as an adult, these other people will not take any responsibility for their part to play or even feel any amount of guilt compared to what you'd be feeling. No one is as invested in your child's wellbeing as much as you are. Your son is too young to do it, so he relies on you to make the difficult calls for him. Your role is so so important, and anyone who doesn't understand that is going to be detrimental to your son's development and relationship with you. Don't enable them to undermine your parenting. They're grownups, you don't need to accommodate their feelings and comfort levels.

  1. When it comes to discipline, remember...
    • You're giving parenting your most sincere, conscious effort. Even if you make a mistake, you're actively trying to improve and be better than your parents were before you. You're not going to turn into them. In fact, you're likely the last person to ever do that because you know firsthand what it's like to be subjected to that experience. Your heart is in the right place, so trust yourself.
    • There's a difference between abuse and discipline. When trying to determine whether a response to a behavior is appropriate, a great rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether you're doing it to meet their needs or your needs. Sometimes the same disciplinary act can be right or wrong in different situations.
      • Example 1, smacking your noisy child to quickly make them be quiet when you're feeling tense is probably excessive and only serves to make your child fear you, rather than teach them anything.
      • Example 2, smacking your child's hand when he reaches for the stove is understandable because you're trying to save him from harm. But you can also simply warn him, and then let him learn the hard way from his own mistakes. If he burns a finger, he'll see you were right, and it might be a valuable lesson for him that he should listen and trust you.
      • Example 3, if your child runs out into a busy street and almost gets killed by a car, spanking might be the best tool you have. Your young child might not understand why it's dangerous no matter how much you explain, but you can't afford to let him learn from his mistakes the hard way when it's matters of life and death. You need to make sure he never does it again because the next time might be his last. Shocking him with a swift spank and a stern scolding gives the rule more importance, and can help ensure he never forgets it. (If it's not something you do too frequently) When your child is old enough to understand the danger, they'll understand why you did it and more likely appreciate that you kept them alive.
    • As a parent who suffered childhood trauma, I also struggle with feelings of guilt when it comes to disciplining my child, and this was the advice given to me by my therapist. This is a heated and controversial topic for a lot of people, but I found this to be a thoughtful approach that takes the good points from both sides of the debate.

  1. Models of healthy behavior are an invaluable resource. Children learn really well from having an example to emulate.
    • Whenever things don't go my child's way, I show him other options. A child at the playground doesn't want to play with him? I suggest to him that he should look for something else to do, and might also ask him if he'd rather go down the slide or play in the sandbox. (Actually, giving him a couple of options and letting him choose is really effective for a lot of situations in general. Kids love getting to make decisions for themselves.)
    • My roommates and I will act out common kid scenarios and show the behavior we want him to learn as often as we can, even if it feels silly for us as adults. We'll casually ask each other for things we don't actually want/need just for the opportunity to show him how to ask, the rewards that (sometimes) come from asking, how to say "thank you," and how we cope when the answer is "no."
    • I give my son opportunities to say "no" to me, when I can, by asking if I can play with his toys, or if he wants to wear his hat that day, or some other inconsequential thing. This way, he gets to develop his own boundaries and sees that consent applies to everyone.
    • Use the books, songs, and shows that your child loves to your advantage. Some things that have worked wonders for me and my son:
      • Associating good choices with characters he loves. (Usually Paw Patrol.) Example, "I bet Ryder and the Paw Patrol love to share their toys with each other."
      • He loves the Daniel Tiger show. When he's upset and tries to hit a friend, I will often ask him "what Daniel Tiger says about hitting?" We'll then sing the song together, "It's okay to feel angry, it's not okay to hurt someone."
      • Honestly, any book/show/movie that has examples of good behavior that you can call on when needed is great. I personally recommend the Hello Genius series of books, written by Michael Dahl. My son loves them and most of the time, simply reminding him of a book we read together works. They're all great, but the most impactful has for sure been Little Monkey Calms Down. If he gets upset and starts to have a tantrum, most of the time I can say "remember how little monkey calms himself down" and he'll go through the steps to calm himself down.

  1. I find it very effective, especially with young children, to game-ify the teaching/learning rather than giving a verbal lecture.
    • The more you talk, the sooner they start tuning it all out.
    • When you do talk, be brief, clear, and firm.
    • My friend with a background in child psychology taught me this great game to play with my son that teaches him the concepts of consent. It's basically "Red light, Green light" but with tickling. Whenever he says "go" or "green light", I tickle him. Whenever he says "stop," "red light", or he looks out of breath, I stop. (Sometimes he'll say "yellow light" when he wants "tiny tickles.") We play this game regularly. He loves it, he gets to enjoy being tickled while feeling safe because he has the power to stop it every time. It should be like this every time you tickle your kid, because consent is not a 'sometimes' thing, it's an always thing. After a while, I started letting him be the tickler (he's not good at it, so I pretend that it tickles) so he can practice being on both sides of the interaction. If he doesn't stop when I ask, the game ends. It safely simulates social interactions without the trauma if they fail, and it's fun so there's motive for them to learn and adapt.

I'm sorry, I know I dumped a lot of advice here. I hope it's helpful for you like it was for me. Take care.

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