Your Cheatin’ Heart

“Sneakin’ out the backdoor to hang out with those hoodlum friends of mine                Greeted at the backdoor with ‘Boy I thought I told you not to go outside’                     Tryin’ hard to bring the water to your eyes                                                                            Thinkin’ it might stop her from whuppin’ your behind”

Stevie Wonder – I Wish

Cheating is a rite of passage for a lot of kids. A demonstrated ability to get over on adults is a quick way for kids or adolescents to gain an advantage, climb a notch or two on the social ladder, or revel in a short burst of smug self-satisfaction.  Usually, the advantage gained through cheating is relatively trivial. Kids learn – usually after getting caught  – that the gain doesn’t often justify the risk. But, as Stevie Wonder sang in his classic I Wish, “While you were doing it, it sure felt outta sight!” so kids will always try to push the envelope and see what they can get away with.

My work with kids takes place in a gym. The group games we play provide fertile ground for prospective cheaters to try to hone their skills. At Academy MetroWest,  groups center on cooperative, non-competitive physical activity to help kids come to view themselves in a more positive light and interact with their peers more successfully. With our work focusing on social skills, we see a lot of kids with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and other issues in which social skills delays appear front and center. Many kids come to us with incredibly strong language skills and other advanced cognitive abilities. However, with very few exceptions, they are horrible cheaters.


When I use ‘horrible’ as an adjective here, I don’t mean to imply that our kids cheat more often or more egregiously than other kids. Rather, I mean that when they cheat, they do so very badly. For kids on the Autism Spectrum and, to a very slightly lesser extent,  kids with ADHD, being bad at cheating is such a widespread trait that I’ve jokingly contemplated the creation of a standardized test of cheating ability that would aid in the diagnostic process. Neuropsychologists could administer it along with the WISC, NEPSY, and other measures designed to tease out each child’s unique cognitive profile. Like the WISC, there would be one global score and then there would be a number of different index scores and subtest scores that look at functioning in specific aspects of cheating and deception. Also like the WISC, different patterns of scatter in scores would be suggestive of different diagnoses and, in turn, different interventions. I would call this new test The Sabian Cheating Assessment Measure or SCAM. I’m being (kind of) facetious about this but, in truth, a test like SCAM could have the potential to identify a range of strengths and weaknesses that also go into any number of different specific social skills.

A few years ago, I attended a workshop on Autism in which the instructor asserted that  anyone claiming to be on the Autism Spectrum who doesn’t have trouble with social interaction isn’t really on the Autism Spectrum. The idea is that the neurological differences among Autistic people make it virtually impossible for them to navigate the unstructured, rapidly shifting, nuanced world of social interaction in an intuitive, efficient way. To me, given that neurological package, it’s even less likely that they will be good cheaters. With ADHD, the odds of being a good cheater increase a bit but it’s still an uphill battle. In order to cheat or stretch the rules with any degree of competence, you need to be able to accurately read and respond to social situations quicker than the people you’re cheating. Once you’ve gained a sufficient sense of your immediate social environment, you also need to find vulnerabilities in the system created to monitor behavior and then act quickly when opportunities present themselves.  If possible, you also need to stay vigilant once you’ve decided to act, remaining aware of who might be watching, remembering the history of interactions you’ve had with that person. Every step in this process presents a challenge to quirky kids. To illustrate this idea, let’s look at the basic challenge of taking cookies from the cookie jar when you’ve been told not to.

Before making the decision to take a cookie, a successful cookie thief needs to answer several questions about their environment. A suitable answer to each question will increase the odds of a successful theft and bad answers lead to the conclusion that the risk of being caught is too great to make it worthwhile. For one thing, the prospective thief probably ought to like cookies and come to the conclusion that having a cookie is better than not having a cookie. That part’s not usually a problem. The first real consideration is “Is this something that I’ve been told not to do?” followed by “Is there a chance that anyone in a position of authority, who has told me not to take a cookie or knows that I’m not supposed to take one, will see me take a cookie?” That part is where it starts becoming more challenging. A more sophisticated cookie thief should also ask a series of questions like “Are there ways for me to decrease my chances of being caught? or “Even if no one in authority is around to see me do it, are they likely  to figure out that I took a cookie anyway?” or “Have I gotten in trouble for something like this recently that might make an authority figure more vigilant or angrier than usual if I were to get caught?” or “If I get caught, can I come up with a plausible explanation?” Among more accomplished cookie thieves, the calculus happens almost instantaneously. Each answer is a decision point when contemplating the age old question –  “Should I or shouldn’t I?”

A common problem that quirky kids run into is that before deciding to try to take the cookie, they don’t get any further in the process than “I like cookies!” before springing into action. Upon seeing the cookies, they decide that life with an extra cookie is better than life without an extra cookie and their decision is made, often with predictably dismal results. Sometimes, even when kids ask themselves if there are any authority figures who might see them and then ponder strategies to avoid detection, the results are similarly disastrous. Kids on the Autism Spectrum usually have trouble with the idea of Theory of Mind or the ability to recognize that others have a different perspective than they do. Their reasoning can follow this line – “I want a cookie and the jar is right there. An adult is standing between me and the cookie jar. I know that when people want to be sneaky and avoid being caught, they walk quietly and on their tiptoes so that’s how I’m going to get past the adult and get the cookie.” Unfortunately, they don’t account for the fact that walking on tiptoes does nothing to help you when the authority figure is looking directly at you.

There are all sorts of variations of ineffective cheating techniques out there but you get the general idea. Successful cheating involves good processing speed, working memory, cognitive flexibility, impulse control, adequate theory of mind skills, and other attributes not often found among the quirky set. So, with the odds stacked against these kids, what’s the best way to respond?

I’m a big proponent of taking an occasional step back in order to take two steps forward. I work with plenty of kids who doggedly persist in their efforts to stretch rules despite being caught at it over and over again. Many times, I’ll respond by telling them “Look. I know that kids are going to try to cheat. But if you’re going to cheat, you need to be much better at it than you are.” I try to emphasize the big picture to them. When people cheat, what they’re trying to do is to gain an advantage. Kids who continuously get caught not only don’t gain an advantage, they put themselves at a disadvantage. Adults come to view them as being untrustworthy and dishonest and other kids see them as being not so swift. Once adults decide that they need to keep an eye on you, the prospects for success become even more elusive.

In phrasing things to kids in this way, some people have assumed that I’m just encouraging kids to work on their cheating skills so that “getting away with it” becomes more realistic. That’s not my goal. In my relationships with kids, I try to focus on things they do well and work with them to keep those assets front and center in the way they present themselves. I’m really trying to tell them that if being a good cheater is not in the cards (so to speak) for them the best way to advance their own self-interest is to avoid doing it. Fortunately, kids on the Autism Spectrum tend to focus on following rules so, in many cases, this is not a particularly tough sell. For others, it’s a tougher slog and they need to go through the process of being caught over and over until – hopefully – they realize that cheating is just not in their interest.

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3 Responses to Your Cheatin’ Heart

  1. Holly Anderson says:

    This is hilarious, and true. I have often explained to my son that he’s a terrible liar and should just give it up, because it never works. He has way too many “tells.”

    • bsabian says:

      Holly – I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve said “Dude! I’m looking right at you! If you’re going to cheat you need to be MUCH better at it than that!” to kids. I try to stop short of providing tutorials though.

  2. Pingback: Talking to 7th Graders About Deflated Balls | Academy MetroWest's Blog

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