The Difference Between ODD and Rigidity in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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The other day a parent mentioned to me that they were wondering if their child had Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder (A.S.D.). He said that the rigidity and lack of flexibility his child exhibited caused him to be concerned that perhaps it stemmed from his child also having O.D.D. This comment reminded me of how easy it would be to see a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder as being oppositional.

The Difference Between ODD and Rigidity in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

oppositional defiance disorder

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To see the difference, one must practice perspective taking skills. Put yourself in the place of the child; imagine a world that often does not make sense to you. Add to that sense of confusion a constant barrage of instructions that you often either do not understand or do not see as relevant. You might very well feel out of control if that was the world that you live in.

When the World Feels Out Of Control

When our world feels out of control we strive to return order into our lives. For a child much of that control comes from predictability and structure. Schedules become paramount and change is the enemy. Rules become the gospel that they live by. Often the rules don’t actually need to make sense, they just need to be a rule. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may have difficulty with concepts such as “maybe” or “later” and small changes in their schedules can cause them to be far more upset than the situation warrants. You see, they actually have very valid reasons for their behavior. They are not intentionally being oppositional, rather they are grasping for control.

Here is the Diagnostic criteria for 313.81 Oppositional Defiant Disorder:

A. A pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least 6 months, during which four (or more) of the following are present:
(1) often loses temper
(2) often argues with adults
(3) often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules
(4) often deliberately annoys people
(5) often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
(6) is often touchy or easily annoyed by others
(7) is often angry and resentful
(8) is often spiteful or vindictive

Does That Sound Like Your Child?

Any parent dealing with a child who has autism spectrum disorder may look at that criteria and think that it describes their child. However, the distinction is what causes the tantrum. Children with A.S.D. actually do respect authority. Their behaviors are not intentional or deliberate. When one of my young clients argues with me, they always have a reason. The reason may not be clear at first but with further investigation, I can usually find the genesis of the problem which usually leads me back to a breakdown in cognitive function. I remember when I started working with Florida Frenz (Author of How To Be Human; Diary of an Autistic Girl), she would scream whenever anyone at made a suggestion. The idea of an unknown demand terrified her. Really, if you don’t understand a request isn’t it easier to just say no? We worked for a year on the difference between what was a rule and what was a suggestion. Once she understood that concept we needed to attack the rigidity of her rules. She would only wear short sleeves when the calendar said it was spring or summer and long sleeves when the calendar said that it was fall or winter. The actual temperature of the day did not matter to her, the rule was set by the calendar.

Our Tips for Developing Social Skills

Flexibility is a Gift

Working on flexibility and seeing the world in shades of gray rather than as black and white is what calms the tantrum versus the extreme structure and consequences that benefit a child with O.D.D. To help a child become more flexible add in small, manageable changes. I worked with one boy who became upset when I was either late or early for our sessions. The difference was measured in minutes, a small difference for most but for this child if I wasn’t there exactly when the clock (the rule) said I should be there then his world became out of control. I started to vary the time that I showed up. I let him wind through his tantrum without giving it energy and then made sure whatever we did next was amazingly fun. Whenever he showed any flexibility I made sure to praise him and to highlight what was fun rather than what was difficult. Today that boy is a happy middle school student who prefers a stable schedule but can handle changes when they happen.

To help a child with autism spectrum disorder who tantrums out of fear of change and the unknown start with predictability and add in small changes. Explain what is happening even when it seems obvious, even when the child appears not to be paying attention. Play games that highlight the unexpected. Give the child choices when you can. Remember to praise, praise, and praise! After all, flexibility is a gift.

Resources for Oppositional Defiance Disorder:

Oppositional Defiant Disorder Resource Center

Empowering Parents

Child Mind Institute

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy


Sensory Integration Strategies and Tips
Sensory Regulation Activities
Social Skills Activities
Social Skills Activities Page
Mental Health Sevices for our Youth
Mental Health Sevices for our Youth
Making Sense of Being Autistic, Teen author writes about her experiences growing up with autism
Making Sense of Being Autistic


  1. I’d like to see one on the differences between ED and Autism as school categories.


    1. Do you mean in terms of their school placement? Many individuals with autism are often misplaced in E.D. classrooms and others have both autism and E.D.. Or do you just mean a breakdown of the criteria that would define what services or placement is offered?


  2. Great post. I really needed this information as this is what we are dealing with with my daughter right now. Thanks for sharing.


      1. My 14yr. son wakes the entire household up, several times a night. Then tells me “no, he’s had enough sleep, he doesn’t need to go back to sleep”. I am so confused on how to help him. I told him he can no longer go in anyone else’s room. Etc… I turned and said, “I still love you.” He said he still loves me too. He constantly goes around the house trying to get a rise out of siblings. Then sometimes he sits and makes new characters on Roblox for an hour.
        He does constantly tell us his new characters names loudly.
        Of course there’s even more stuff etc…. he has the formerly known pdd-nos with cognitive dysfunction.
        Any suggestions I welcome, please.
        Mom needing sleep!


        1. That is a lot to deal with. Without knowing more about your son we would recommend asking your doctor to refer you to a sleep specialist for a sleep study. Some of our clients have also benefited from rigorous exercise but make sure to do it hours before you expect him to sleep. We have also heard that Epsom salt baths and magnesium cream at bedtime can help soothe a person to sleep. Lack of sleep can absolutely affect behavior. Do you have the support of an OT or behavioral specialist? We suggest that you also check out our sensory processing post and our resource page.


  3. You really are a wealth of knowledge. I’d never heard of ODD before. Thank you for sharing the information.


  4. I’ve never even heard of odd before reading your post! Glad I kinda know about this now. Thanks for the share ❤


  5. What a great post. I know there are so many parents experiencing these things with their children! Nice to know what to look for and the tips to work with the kids. I think a little gray area with any child can be good.


    1. Thanks, I wrote it in response to a father’s question. I hope it helps some people.


  6. I honestly don’t think I had ever heard of ODD before your post. Interesting info – thanks for sharing.


    1. O.D.D. fortunately is not very common.


  7. This is a fascinating post! I appreciated the insight into how others perceive and interact with the world around them. My munchkins don’t have ASD but I still appreciated the way you described the challenges faced by children who do. Hmmm, but I do recognise a few too many of those criterion I’m afraid. Sigh.


  8. Thank you for joining up with the #SquarePeg link up – it is really interesting to hear about the differences between conditions which might look similar from an outside perspective!
    Take care, and I hope you’ll pop by next week too!


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