Learned behaviour

Learned behaviour

By Rosie and Jo’s mum.

It’s a regularly recounted scenario on forums for parents of children with ASD. They are describing how an undiagnosed sibling is displaying behaviour that is also indicative of ASD. The response often thrown at them very quickly is “That is just learned behaviour.” This quickly shuts down the conversation and the behaviour is effectively dismissed. This does nothing to address the parent’s concern and can prevent children from receiving early diagnosis and early intervention.

The idea that behaviour is learned isn’t new or surprising.  Most of us are familiar with the nature/nurture debate and learned behaviour theories sit on the nurture side.

So when do we display learned behaviour?  All day every day.  It’s anything that isn’t innate. We learn behaviours when they are reinforced by responses. Stimming is a learned behaviour. It is something the child has tried and it has been reinforced by the fact that it feels calming or pleasurable.  Does this mean it is not a result of the child’s autism? Hiding in small spaces is something children with ASD can discover makes them feel safer so they then do it when they are feeling particularly anxious or overwhelmed. It is a learned behaviour.

Jo used to hide in the school cloakroom under the coats when she couldn’t cope in the playground. She learned that it helped her so she did it more.  It was a learned behaviour.

So when someone dismisses the ASD traits a child is displaying as learned behaviour, what are they saying?

  • Are they saying that the child is pretending to have ASD as some sort of attention seeking ploy?
  • Are they saying that being exposed to the behaviour of a sibling with ASD makes neurotypical children behave in an autistic way?
  • Are they saying that the parents are rewarding the child for displaying symptoms of autism because they want them to have a diagnosis for some twisted reason?
  • Are they saying that this behaviour doesn’t fit with their own current theory of what’s going on for this family so it needs to be swiftly and effectively dismissed?

There does seem to be a pattern of the ‘learned’ label being used to dismiss behaviour that the professional(s) involved with the family doesn’t really want to investigate.

The use of this statement has been niggling me for a while.  It seems unhelpful and dismissive and it is quite powerful in that many parents won’t understand the backgroud to it enough to challenge it.  I decided to look into the theories of learned behaviour and the research into siblings that display autistic traits.

Interestingly, the conclusions seem to be that the individual risk of ASD increases with increasing genetic relatedness and that the genetics play a part in siblings exhibiting broader traits of autism in their development and behaviour.  Siblings of children with ASD are more likely to be diagnosed themselves or display some traits of autism.  This doesn’t seem to support the view that autistic traits in siblings of children with ASD should be dismissed as learned behaviour, rather it should be a reason to trigger an assessment.

Where learned behaviour is observed, it tends to be children with ASD learning social skills from neurotypical siblings, rather that the NT sibling copying ASD traits:  the evidence supports the view that a NT sibling will have a positive impact on their ASD siblings via social learning rather than the child with ASD having a negative impact on their neurotypical sibling.

I don’t think its reasonable to draw the conclusion that a child who has a sibling with ASD and who is displaying autistic traits or behaviours is likely to be a neurotypical child simply displaying learned behaviour.

So what questions could parents ask when their child’s behaviour is dismissed as being learned?

  • Are you saying that you don’t believe that my child’s behaviour is the result of ASD, even though children with ASD display learned behaviours too?
  • Where is the evidence that having a sibling with ASD makes a neurotypical child behave as if they have an ASD?
  • If my child has learned stereotypical autistic behaviour from her sibling, why has she not also learned to behave in a stereotypically  neurotypical manner from her neurotypical classmates.
  • How do you believe the the autistic type behaviour she is displaying is being reinforced?
  • Why don’t all neurotypical children who have a sibling with ASD display autistic behaviours?
  • What other reasons have you considered as the possible causes of my child’s behaviour and how did you reach the conclusion that they were not relevant?
  •  Are you assuming that 100% of my child’s presentation is due to learned behaviour?
  • Have you taken time to explore our child’s family history of neurodiversity, not just ASD but dyslexia, dyspraxia etc (all of which would be suggestive of a genetic basis)?
  • Have you any evidence that our child with ASD is demonstrating those behaviours for his sibling to learn?

When I first raised concerns about Jo, following her sister’s diagnosis, I was told that the difficulties she was having in school which were observed by outside professionals were ‘just learned behaviour’.  I should have enquired at the time as to whom they thought she was learning this behaviour from as she never attended the same school as her sister. Looking back, I can see now that this wasn’t an informed professional opinion but a way to dismiss my concerns and prevent me from seeking further assessment and support.

I’m happy to accept that there are times when negative behaviours and behaviours that indicate a mental health or neurodevelopmental problem are displayed by children simply because they have been learned and reinforced somehow, at some point. However, I think this explanation may be being used far more often than it is justified and some questions to prompt critical thinking on the part of the professionals concerned would certainly not come amiss.

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2 thoughts on “Learned behaviour

  1. Well said! Most likely, the sibling is neurodiverse. If not autistic, then likely Tourette’s, OCD, ADHD, etc. One medical issue that should be ruled out though, if new or increased divergent behaviour is seen, is strep throat. PANDAS (Paediatric Autoimmune Neurological Disorder Associated With Strep) is a treatable condition easy to test for. In most cases, though, there are no health problems, just genetic diversity.


  2. I was told my Asd daughter was copying my Asd son….I had to ask how? As I had one planted in the corner throwing things refusing to move, and the other spinning off to the moon(if she had half a chance) refusing to stand still for a second. It’s only when the professional saw it for themselves they agreed with me


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