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Autism/help with student's use of profanity


One of our students with autism at our school is 7 years old. He is highly intelligent, artistic, articulate and creative, and loves dinosaurs, sea creatures and building with plasticine. Although we appreciate his unique personality and work with his interests and strengths as much as possible, we are having difficulty with his use of profanity at school.

We spent the last two months of the school year documenting his swearing and found it to occur anywhere from 1-15 times per day, usually when he does not want to comply with a request from his teacher, but also during class discussions when he blurts out inappropriately.

The boy uses a visual schedule, first-then routines and has part-time support from an educational assistant in the classroom. He has a good relationship with his teacher overall.

We have tried using a social story explaining that people sometimes swear when they are upset or angry, that it is unexpected and inappropriate in settings such as schools, that it upsets people, and that there are other words to use instead of swear words. We drafted a list with him of alternative words to use. Despite using the story consistently over several weeks, it did not achieve the results we were looking for.

We also tried a token economy system where he would earn a small cube of plasticine to keep for every day he did not swear at school. He loved this and it worked inconsistently over two months - he once went six consecutive days without swearing, but it did not completely curb the problem. We also implemented a "one minute of missed free time for every swear word" system at the same time. He did not enjoy missing time from preferred activities but would sometimes get very down on himself about it and cry when he was "serving his time".

Unfortunately his mother is not as supportive of our efforts as we would like. Sending him home from school when he swears is not feasible, and he would actually enjoy this given that he likely would be permitted to play independently at home. According to his sister, he swears at home frequently as well. His father visits infrequently and the boy tells us that he has learned all his swearing from him. He has an extensive vocabulary of profanity!  

Any and all suggestions would be greatly appreciated. It is difficult to support this student while addressing the concerns of the parents of his classmates who feel strongly that their children should not be exposed to this language at school.

Hi Karen,

First, I am impressed with all that you have done for this child. He is a lucky boy to have landed in your school. Although the profanity is a real concern, can you imagine what things might be like for this boy without the supports you've provided?

You are already most of the helpful strategies such as first/then, visuals, schedules, social stories, etc. Considering some of the language that you mention using, I'm guessing that you are using some of the Michelle Garcia Winner social thinking materials such as this: You are a Social Detective ( and Superflex ( Talking about expected and unexpected behaviours and how they might make others feel is good training for kids on the autism spectrum. But, first they have to care what others might feel. And, before that, they need to understand that others may have different thoughts and feelings that he has himself. This Theory of Mind awareness is difficult for some kids who have autism, even those who are high functioning. The Superflex program can help, plus Garcia Winner's Thinking about You Thinking About Me (

From what you describe, some of the profane words he utters may be chosen for the moment, but some might not be within his control. Is it possible that this student has a tic disorder? That might be worth investigating; you would not want to apply consequences to a behaviour that is not within his control.

What is his attention like? Do you see impulsivity as a problem? Does he have trouble inhibiting his actions? If so, it would be even more difficult for him to refrain from an action that has become a habit. You might find Dr. Russell Barkley's take on this interesting ( and

You have had some success with the token economy system and having him miss a minute of his preferred activity. It might be worth revisiting these approaches, just with a few tweaks. Devise a social story that pertains just to him missing a minute of his favourite activity when he swears. In the social story, talk about the time length. There is no harm in him being saddened to miss some of this time. But, kids on the spectrum have weak executive functioning skills, which includes their sense of time. He may have little concept of what one minute feels like and may become down on himself, believing that he will need to miss a lot of time for his mistake. Using a time-timer, sand-timer or some other type of visual might help.

What sort of attention does he receive when he swears? How to the other kids react? I would be difficult for the adults to not show their distaste. Do you think that he like the attention or notoriety, even though it is negative? Sometimes ignoring will extinguish behaviour, although it's difficult for the adults. Might it be worth looking at aa combination of ignoring the swearing and giving rewards (physical and praise) when he uses one of the substitute words you helped him create?

I once did a consult in a school where an adolescent boy with autism spit. The spitting had increased significantly over a periods of months until he was spitting many times a day in the faces of students and staff, on the artwork lining the walls, on the desks, etc. He loves the reactions he received from one and all. The school developed social stories, they took away fun activities, they issued consequences, they worked on sensory replacement behaviours; nothing worked and the spitting continued to increase. Finally, in desperation, they tried ignoring. Everyone ignored his spitting - teachers, EAs, janitors, the bus driver and the students. It took concerted efforts to get the ignoring message across and, at first, as with any behaviour program, the unwanted behaviour increased before they decreased. Initially he tried all the harder to elicit the reactions he was used to. But over the course of a couple weeks they noticed a reduction in the spitting, until it extinguished.

There is no easy solution to this challenging behaviour and he might return to school in the fall with swearing firmly entrenched in his vocabulary if no one has worked on curbing this over the summer. You are already doing so many good things, which makes it frustrating when you do not see much progress in this troubling area.

This is just an aside, but your question has given me food for thought. I wrote a series of novels, each depicting a student on the autism spectrum (the fourth book in the series comes out July 29th, but I have not written one that focuses on this particular problem. Hmmm.

Best wishes,


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Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell


Sharon can help with parenting and educational concerns. She has worked in teaching, special education, counseling and consulting for over thirty years and gives workshops to educators and parents on working with kids with autism spectrum disorders. Sharon speaks from both the education and parent points of view, having an adult son with Asperger's.


Sharon has spent decades as a special education consultant with a school district and autism consult for the province's Department of Education, giving workshops and individual consults. Currently she works as regional autism consultant for a health district in between teaching university classes. She is an Amazon bestselling author or a series of novels, each depicting a child who has an autism spectrum disorder. Sharon's Master's thesis looked at the long-term outlook for persons with high functioning autism and Asperger's. Her Doctorate focused on strategies to help those with autism spectrum disorders.

Website at and sits on Autism Today's Panel of Experts (

Author of "Autism Goes to School" - a novel about autism that that became an Amazon bestseller. Get this Amazon bestseller free at In the next book, Autism Runs Away, Ethan is only in grade one and already has been kicked out of one school due to his tantrums and pattern of running away when in a panic. Now in a new school his mom remains glued to her phone, waiting for the call to tell her that they donít know what to do with a child who has autism. Sara is about to learn if this new school is up to the challenge. ( Autism Belongs is the 3rd book. Manny's life has shrank to the confines of their house. His parents are desperate not to rock his world because the aggression has gotten to much worse. Where will this lead? Is there a chance that Manny could actually belong out in the world? You bet! Get a free sample at Book four, Autism Talks and Talks, is about a 12 year old girl who has Asperger's. She's bright, inquisitive, highly verbal, but lacks social skills. Try a free sample at Book five, Autism Grows Up features Suzie, a bright, twenty-one year old whose life collapsed after she finished high school. Now, she lives in her mother's basement, spending nights on her computer, afraid to broach the world outside their door. Autism Grows Up is found at Prefer a boxed set? Get the first 3 books bundled together at Co-author of bestseller, The Official Autism 101 Manual (

B.A. in Psychology, B.Ed. in Special Education, M.A. in Educational Leadership PhD. in Psychology Management, specializing in autism.

Awards and Honors
B.R.A.G. Medallion for the novel Autism Goes to School - Book 1 in the School Daze Series. ( Like Autism Goes to School, the third book in the series, Autism Belongs, also ranked #1 on Amazon ( Manny is not like other children. He doesnít talk. He doesnít leave the house. His parents desperately try to arrange their world so that Manny does not get upset. Because, when he does, well, the aggression was getting worse. At ten, Manny was becoming difficult to handle.

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