‘Good’ behaviour at school – not so good at home?

Note – this is not applicable to all individuals with autism, nor all schools!!!

Regarding autism and whether it is possible for children to display different behaviours at home compared to school – this is something that over the years probably hundreds of parents have asked me about. So often the message is a similar (and familiar) one – that at school the child ‘behaves’ well, while at home things can get…well, kinda out of hand! This results in huge frustration for parents who cannot seem to get school to accept that behaviour at home is so different to that at school, with school insisting that ‘everything must be ok’ [NB I am not suggesting that all schools respond in this way, many will be highly supportive of the family).


It is very clearly documented (by parents and professionals, as well as organisations such as the NAS) that many children with autism (though not all) will display considerably different behaviours in different settings. This can be as a result of a wide range of reasons, from central coherence abilities, to environmental factors, to differing levels of stress in different situations. A reasonably common pattern in terms of school/home behaviour is that the child may appear to present with no problems at school, but at home there can be major issues in terms of behaviour. Often, the result is that either school simply do not believe that the child they see at school can be displaying the reported behaviours at home, or that school erroneously believe that because the behaviours are only seen at home then the causing factors for the behaviour must also be situated there. This is not always the case, and it is of imperative importance that all parties involved recognise the serious nature of high levels of distress, and recognise that all aspects of the individual’s life may be a contributory factor towards high arousal – which, in turn, may manifest in behavioural issues. This can lead well into adulthood – for example I know several people whose behaviour at work appears to demonstrate no problem at all, whereas the reality is that they are in high states of anxiety and stress, to the point of self injury at home, and, in some cases, anxiety and depression. This demonstrates just how important it is that all concerned recognise this reasonably common autism related pattern as early as possible, in order to support the child (or adult) well. Just because a child has the ability to ‘mask’ their autism at school does not mean that they are not greatly impacted by their autism on a daily basis. In fact, it is often this ‘masking’ behaviour (acting, or copying other children) that lead school to believe that there is no problem at school; however, it may be that the child is behaving in this way precisely because they are stressed and have discovered that by copying others they can ‘hide’ their very real problems. When at home, all of the emotional distress may then be released in what is seen as a safe environment. The irony is that in some cases, it is the stress and anxiety experienced at school that subsequently lead to the copying behaviour and subsequent meltdowns at home!

50 thoughts on “‘Good’ behaviour at school – not so good at home?”

  1. This is my son to a “T” been having real issues at home but the school keep saying no problem here etc etc, asked them for a referral for the doctors and got one finally stating he has no issues etc so the dr’s cant act on it as not enough – soooo frustrating as getting no where. Thanks for the post

    1. Vicky, if your son has no diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that just because the school don’t see the autistic behaviours that he doesn’t warrant a diagnosis. Perhaps video him if possible without him knowing, or audio record a meltdown. Often the behaviour happens outside of the home too, even if not at school. Every child deserves recognition of their difficulties however they behave and I believe most council’s should have an early intervention policy. Do they want a child who ends up a burden on the system later due to lack of support now?

    2. My son is the same, psychologist said he is fine st school and basically say i am allowing his behaviour at home or it isnt as bad as i say or not happening at all, all because he is fine at school, take the routine away from him and that’s when it starts, school holidays are the worst x

  2. My daughter rarely displays her home behaviours at school. She can also keep her control in other places too. Thanks for the confirmation xxxx

  3. This is my daughter too, she is 12 and has a dx of ASD, she masks all the time at school and then falls apart at home, last year she had roughly 15 days of complete school refusal and made no progress for the whole yr. We have been fighting our local authority to get a statement for her for 12 months and are just getting ready to go back to tribunal for the 2nd time! It is soul destroying to see her struggling and not be able to help her.
    I often wish she would swear at someone or throw a chair!! At least then she would get some help! 🙁
    Thankyou for publishing your thoughts and with your permission I would like to include them in my tribunal bundle.

  4. The mew EHC plans are even harder to get. Most autistic children who suffer quietly in school won’t even get an assessment, as the schools won’t support it unless it suits th em!

    1. EHCPs should be on the same basis as statements, according to the official sources.

      Statements were for a range of difficulties, including emotional and social as well as behavioural because all those things affect access to education.

      Don’t be afraid to challenge the LA.

  5. You have just described my son! However school have labeled us as “parenting problems” and reported us to Social Services. It has been a challenging year as now not only am I caring for a teenage boy with ASD and ADHD going through his GCSE’s. But having to meet social workers go to CAF meetings too! He is stressed about his exams but masks it at school and explodes violently at home.

  6. So true Luke and as I say, the blame culture from professionals means that:

    (1) if the child misbehaves at school, the cause must be from parenting/home life;
    (2) if the child misbehaves at home, the cause must be from parenting/home life.

    They can’t have it both ways!! if the behaviour at school is difficult and they blame the parents, then by default they would take responsibility if the behaviour is good at school but difficult at home. Professionals’ attitudes need to change.

    I even had a really great teacher (and nice person) with years of autism experience, tell me to record my daughter’s extreme behaviour for her to see, because she was good at school. This was despite me also copying a professional account of her very difficult behaviour during a research exercise away from the home.

    There is this incredulity that if someone doesn’t see it themselves they can’t marry the description of the child being aggressive/meltdowns/violent with the inhibited and anxiously compliant child they see at school. This is also very often the case when the child is a girl.

  7. My nearly 10yr old son sounds exactly like this ive spoken to his teachers about his behaviour at home but they dont see it at school, he had referral to camhs and was tested for adhd i done the connors form mine scored high up and surprise surprise the schools 1 was opposite apart from learning which was border line and because he behaved in clinic they couldnt diagnose anything but they said its obvious he needed routine and myself and school were to do visual timetables in which the school said he dont need 1, his on an iep and has been since reception class. His on melatonin at home otherwise he doesnt sleep its so frustrating

    1. Sarah mcinnes, I have loads of information about masked ADHD as my daughter has this on top of her autism too and the NHS won’t diagnose her. I hope this helps:


      “The pooled prevalence in children with ASD for the different conditions was:

      ADHD: 45% (95% CI 24, 67)”

      The NICE Guidance does not state that difficulties must be present at school (or even in clinical settings), but:


      “For a diagnosis of ADHD, symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity and/or inattention should:

      * be pervasive, occurring in two or more important settings including social, familial, educational and/or occupational settings.”

      Note that it does not say one of those settings has to be school. So it could be socially, at clubs, at appointments, visiting other family members, appointments etc.


      “It’s very common for kids with ADHD to behave better in one setting or another, whether that is behaving well at home and terrible at school or vice versa. Oftentimes, this is because of a difference in the home and school environments.”

      Ability to Focus to the point of hyperfocus in ADHD


      “High distractibility – in children with ADHD who are unable to stay focused on a classroom lecture or in adults with ADD who never get around to doing their paperwork – is a key ADHD symptom and diagnosis criterion. What you might not know about ADHD is that there’s another side: the tendency for children and adults with attention deficit disorder to focus very intently on things that do interest them. At times, the focus is so strong that they become oblivious to the world around them. For children, the object of “hyperfocus” might be playing a video game or watching TV. For adults, it might be shopping or surfing the Internet. But whatever holds the attention, the result is the same: Unless something or someone interrupts, hours drift by as important tasks and relationships fall by the wayside. Some ADDers, for example, are able to channel their focus on something productive, such as a school- or work-related activity. Others allow themselves to hyperfocus on something as a reward for completing a dull but important task.”


      “Researchers recognize that ADHD doesn’t impair the ability to pay attention, but rather the ability to control what one pays attention to.”

      Furthermore, research has found that levels of attention and focus differ between the different ADHD sub-types:


      “The group with ADHD-HI did not show significant impairment in any neuropsychological measure, compared with the 2 other subtype groups and the control subjects. Thus, the findings from this exploratory study suggesting neuropsychological deficits only in ADHD subtypes where inattention is significantly present concur with studies that have demonstrated more academic impairments in subjects with ADHD-I and ADHD-C, but not in subjects with ADHD-HI (18,25,26,50). It therefore seems that the hyperactive dimension of symptoms is not linked to significant cognitive problems. The performance of the ADHD-I group on the ST supports Barkley’s model for ADHD, suggesting that inattention in this ADHD type may be associated with more specific deficits of selective attention and that inattention may be qualitatively different in ADHD-C,”

      http://adhd-edu.be/Web/index.php?toPage=MjI= (3/5 on this list apply to our daughter)

      “Children and adolescents with masked AD/HD include the following:

      * Boys with inattentive type AD/HD.
      * Girls with all types of AD/HD.
      * Boys and girls with borderline AD/HD and another condition or conditions.
      * Girls and boys with a learning disability and/or another condition on the autistic spectrum who also have AD/HD.
      * Gifted girls and boys with AD/HD.”


  8. I’m still fighting for my 12 year old son,they didn’t believe me at school and even the pediatrician doubted me ,when he had his mda low and behold they wouldn’t give him a diagnosis, he’s started at high school now and they’ve helped me and him more than you can imagine, my son talks inappropriate to people,he hates loud noises,will not brush his teeth hates his nails cut,walks on his tiptoes and he can have screaming temper tantrums which he can lash out, I feel like I’m just banging my head on a brick wall, I’m so scared and anxious about him all the time,its making me very sad and I need to know what is wrong with my beautiful boy

  9. My ds was diagnosed with asd last week I’ve had a meeting with the school but they keep saying his teacher has no problems. She has been with him 2 years now because his behaviour in reception was so bad he still has the occasional melt down at school but no where near as bad…. but every morning and after school is behaviour is awful punching swearing and even running out the house most nights I sit in tears feeling like a awful parent but it was so refreshing reading this and knowing I’m not alone in my struggles even some family members keep telling me he’s fine as if the professionals have made a mistake.

  10. I hope you don’t mind, but I found this article of yours a while ago and I have shared it with other families who, like us, were going through difficulties with their child’s school. A copy of it (always credited btw!) went in my son’s EHCP request that we did ourselves..we were one of the few families who got one first go, so, thank you for your help..our boy starts his new special school next week!

  11. An EHCP, like a statement of SEN is not only for children who are struggling academically.

    Any special need which impacts the education may warrant one, so don’t be fobbed off by LA officials or teachers etc. telling you your child doesn’t qualify.

    It really annoys me that there is this parental blame when children are struggling in school and for teachers to report parents to social services just because they don’t see it in front of them is appalling.

    Flat affect can be common in autism! Masking is common in autism!

  12. Thank you for this article. It describes my son and I have been getting rather frustrated. The school are saying “average” and “not a problem” where as I am answering questionnaires that say he is undoubtably on the autistic spectrum. Fortunately we took video of my son stimming and the paediatrician is supporting a diagnosis of ASD for him.

  13. Thanks for the post!!! We have the same problem with a ten year old grandaughter. The parents are at their wits end so maybe this article will be of some help. Thanks again!

  14. We have this same thing always pushed in my face my childs fine just becoz he manages at school walking through those doors at home time i can tell just by his face what kinda night we are in for i have noticed things just taking him in. speach and language did an assesment at school yet again fine so i decided to video record at home to take to the pead who was convinced he had asd from the 1st visit so for telling people for months put my son in a different setting you will see how he reacts i showed the pead the videos and how bad things really were and his anxiety and she was totaly shocked from the 1st visit with pead he would cry hiding under tables screaming with his hands on his ears the fire alarm that went off in clinic it was giving him a headache the lights hurt his eyes he wouldnt interact with her nd no eye contact so she phoned speach and language and said to have an appointment out of school in clinic lone behold he reacted the same way he did with the pead and she was shocked how much he cant cope with change he sat in the corner with his nose in the wall and wouldnt entertain toys hiding under chairs the speach lady has agreed and a new report to be done she told me some children on the spectrum manage really well with structure and routine nd thats the case for my boy he holds it in at school until hes at a comfortable place for him to release it so found out after all im not going mad and have done the right thing for my boy keep battling on as its no easy ride but eventually people will listen if you stand your ground.

  15. Hi! I am having the opposite problem with my 8 year old non verbal asd kiddo. He is kicking his teaching aids and other behaviors that he does not display at home. He is usually a happy go lucky little boy but lately when i drop him at school he starts crying. I dunno what to do?

    1. Hi Rachael – sounds to me like there is a problem at school, or maybe the new term and all the changes that come with it have thrown him?

  16. My grandaughter is good at school but really aggressive to me when home
    Kicking trashing swearing running out doors now been put on child protection and diagnosed with adhd but think there is more to it

  17. My son also masks at assessment interviews. He scored above the threshold for ASD (but I hate the term disorder) in the 3Di interview with us parents looking at history and behaviour but when the psychologists and speech therapists assessed him they said they don’t think he has autism. He is very intelligent and a lovely boy who likes to do well at school but we have terrible meltdowns at home when plans change, things don’t go the way he thinks they should or there are sensory issues (too many thunder flies, sun in his eyes, brother sitting too close, brother chewing too loudly etc). He scored highly for anxiety but surely this is part of autism? He does a great jib at school but you can see the tension in him. Very dissatisfied and disappointed that our very famous London hospital doesn’t see that he is masking.

  18. I am having the same problems with my 6 year old son. At school his teachers say there is no problem with his behaviour but at home he is having daily meltdowns. He has been rejected by CAMHS three times because school don’t see that side of him and I am now having to go through parenting strategies again, which didn’t work the first time I had to do them three years ago. It is so frustrating when people don’t believe you then blame you.

  19. Dear Luke,
    My son fooled junior school for years. He was fine there and came home to me like a bottle of pop shook all day long. The lid was removed in the car on the way home.
    He went to high school Sep 16 and his anxiety levels were so high I couldn’t cope at home and he is now in foster care.
    The reason they want to keep him there now is that as he only erupts with me, they don’t want him to come back to me even though we are trying to get him in a special school as ‘it might start again’. So it’s my fault and I’m fighting a full care order. I need as much evidence that some children with autism can hold it together and erupt at home but it isn’t the mother they love that is the problem it’s the challenges in mainstream school. Can you help in any way?

  20. Could it be that the reverse could be masking too?!? More manageable at home for the most part but extremely difficult with many meltdowns at school! Undergoing a second neurodev assessment at the moment as more symptoms have to come light since his initial diagnosis 2/3 years ago.

  21. Thank you for this, it’s very helpful. We also have a (probably PDA) son whose behaviour is ‘unproblematic’ at school and unbearable at home. We don’t live in the UK & here PDA is totally unknown. Slowly, slowly getting through to staff that although he can ‘behave’ at school, the pressure build-up is literally un-liveable-with when it explodes at home. It’s exhausting, as I’m sure it is for all parents on here. Keep going, don’t give up! Keep loving your

  22. I’m glad you mentioned the home/work thing. I used to hold it all in and act ‘normal’, wreck when I got home. It all finally got me in my late twenties when I lost my job and lost functioning. Finally diagnosed after My son’s dx aged 34. My daughter (8) is just the same, she was lucky enough to be assessed by Dr Judith Gould and is doing well now. I don’t want her to end up like me.

  23. I have been reading the comments about EHCP’s. I have an aspie girl (8), highly intelligent and very well behaved at school. She has an EHCP with full time 121 plus daily SALT, OT, weekly mindreading and social groups. We did have to go to tribunal, but only over content. Please don’t believe anything an LA or school tells you without checking it out with independents like IPSEA or SOSSEN. To get a statutory assessment for your child, which may lead to an EHCP you have to meet a legal test. The rest is in the Children and Families Act sec36 (8 ). To get an assessment you need to prove that your child MAY have SEN and MAY need extra provision. Note the word may, it’s a low legal threshold. I just wanted to comnent because my daughter is doing so well now she has had her needs identifued and met. I want this for all our girls. I wish I had had support at school, I often wonder what I could have become. Good luck.

  24. I’ve been told EHCPs only come into play if the school can’t show they can meet the child’s needs.
    My son (8) was diagnosed with epilepsy last year but is in the CAMHs waiting list for an ADHD assessment although the school have issued ASD concerns to both myself and CAMHs.
    I’m not sure about any of it. I’m on my own, he has an older sister who is just amazing (10) yet part of me still thinks what if he’s just naughty because of me? Maybe I’m a bad mum. He displays spectrum behaviour at school and even more at home but never at his Dad’s when he visits one a fortnight?

  25. I have a son who is nearly 12, he was diagnosed at 5 with ASD, moderate learning difficulties. Hes a lovely child, a pleasure to be around – until he goes to school then its a different story, hes hit other pupils, thrown trowels, chairs, inappropriate and rude comments, over-reaction to his own behaviour has lead to him making 3 suicide threats in the past 6 months. What I,m really confused about is why he is (usually) well behaved at home? no meltdowns, does as hes told, I can take him almost anywhere though I do have to keep a very close eye on him or he,d wander off..I,ve read a lot about children on the spectrum kicking off when theyre at home but better behaved at home – really confused as a result and struggling to find any real answers!

  26. Hi Luke,
    I am in a rather difficult position because I am a Step-Dad to a 15 y.o. ASPIE boy. The problem is that his behavior at home is deplorable. He shows absolutely no regard for others and constantly acts very immaturely. Somehow, I am expected to laugh atwhat he finds funny (not), constantly pick up after him, constantly remind him to do things, constantly be told I don’t know what I am talking about etc etc etc…His mother agrees that he is not at all a likable boy at home. Whereas outside the house he “turns it on” and is charming. So, everyone thinks I am a dog because I am grumpy about him. They just don’t get it.
    Of course, his mother LOVES him and I can’t stand him. I don’t wish him ill and do all I can to be supportive. But I think it is causing irreparable harm on the relationship with my partner. I could go on and on describing this, but I think I am in a no-win position. We have tried professional help, but we seem to stop just at that point where he has to comply with instructions. And you know he know best – not. Any ideas, please

  27. My daughter was diagnosed with ADHD when she was 16 she’s is now 26 and has her own daughter. We all struggle my grandaughters behaviour, she is 5. She is sound amazing at school she designed a presentation at my house with pictures and paragraphs and then presented it to us. All off her own back.
    But she does things that are hard for us to manage like we go for a family meal, she screams shouts hits us throws things and everyone looks at us. One day she kept hitting me and when my daughter came back she tried to get out the car while it was moving she wound window down as child locks were on, and opened car door by handle out the window. My poor daughter was a wreck of fright horror and doesn’t know how to cope. We took my granddaughter to her GP he’s referred her to a children’s mental health specialist but it could be a few weeks.

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