In the Autism/Aspergers world, I’m what is known as a neurotypical or NT, while my son is known as an Aspie or Aspergian. Although some (like my older brother!) might argue that I am anything BUT ‘normal’, my brain does function fairly typically. The brains of people with Autism and Aspergers however, do not, and this enables them to see the world in atypical ways. As such, in my efforts to parent successfully, I’ve had to adjust my NT thinking, to try to see the world through my son’s eyes…with his Aspie brain and unique perspectives on life. And this has taken some getting used to….
Without realizing it, neurotypical folks constantly, instantaneously and seamlessly survey the written rules or ‘hidden curriculum’ of every environment and every person [we] encounter, to make decisions about how to proceed successfully within a given context.
The hidden curriculum refers to a set of rules or guidelines about social behavior that are often not directly taught. It is assumed knowledge that helps lubricate the cogs of society and enables groups of people to live, work and interact together harmoniously. These rules are wide-reaching and complex, covering a variety of topics from table manners to slang words, dating protocol to classroom etiquette…and much more. Virtually every aspect of our daily lives is based upon a foundation of hidden curricula – widely-held assumed knowledge that we probably don’t even remember learning.
We don’t recall learning most of these rules, because “everybody just KNOWS that!” We NTs are unconscious social navigators and learn naturally through observation and intuition. We take it for granted that all relatively smart people should be able to acquire these skills in the same manner. Unfortunately, for those with Aspie brains, these skills are not acquired naturally. In spite of being potentially brilliant in other intellectual arenas, they have what is called social-cognitive learning disabilities when it comes to the hidden curriculum.
An example of this lack of common understanding occurred recently in our home. Gregory had been dared to do something stupid [my words!] by another boy, so he did it. When I questioned Greg about why, he answered, “because he dared me…I had to.” But, instead of reprimanding him for making a bad decision, I backed up and reconsidered. “Greg, just because someone dares you to do something, doesn’t mean you HAVE to do it. You can CHOOSE to accept the dare or not.” Greg looked at me in amazement…”You can?” He had totally misunderstood the social rule and believed that there was no option with a dare – no matter how stupid. I shudder to think what might have happened if he still believed that ‘rule’ into his teenage years…Yikes!!!
So, this deficit can create significant problems. The inability to develop adequate social skills and interpret social nuance of those around them brings life-long challenges to Aspies. We, as NT adults in society, are willing to explain and excuse social ‘misbehaviors’ in very young children, but as they get older, kids and certainly adults are expected to know these unwritten, unspoken items of general understanding. How do we react when someone breaks the ‘social code’? We are shocked, upset, angry and perhaps even disgusted. “How rude!” or “Weirdo” or “Can you believe this guy?” rings through our heads. Because, breaking a hidden curriculum rule can make that person a social misfit or even a social outcast.
What can we do to help those with social-cognitive deficits? These individuals must learn the hidden curriculum by direct instruction versus intuition. Parents and educators must become ‘social anthropologists’ to first determine various hidden curriculum items and then find ways to teach them. This is not an easy task, because we assume everyone knows the assumed knowledge! We literally don’t know what to teach them, because we don’t know what we know…
One of the primary ways to recognize an example of hidden curriculum is when an error occurs. When a teenager addresses the principal as “Dude” or when a young man at the urinal drops his pants all the way to the floor. When a girl texts using ALL CAPS and the receiver thinks she is shouting at her. When a man in an office talks over his boss to correct the boss’s ‘error’. When a woman talks loudly in church or during a movie….you name it – There are rules for just about every interaction we have on a daily basis. And when a rule is broken, people notice.
To make things even harder for Aspies, the hidden curriculum is not just vast, but it is complex and elusive as well. The rules change across age, gender, who you are with, culture, environment, etc. And to add another layer of complexity, most Aspies have difficulty generalizing, so what they have learned for one situation may or may not be carried over to a similar situation – the hidden curriculum rules must be explicitly taught for each scenario!
There are a variety of methods that may be used to help your child acquire unwritten social knowledge, many of which you can read about in available reference material. One fabulous book, from which I gained my first insights into this area, is called The Hidden Curriculum by Brenda Smith Myles. Here are a few methods from the book that I have employed successfully with my son:
1. Safe Person
Identify one or more ‘safe people’ at home, school, camp, etc. who can help your child with Hidden Curriculum questions. Your child should trust this person and be willing to ask about social questions. This parent, teacher, mentor or close friend should understand the deficit and be willing and able to provide accurate, clear clarification to the meaning of words, phrases and situations.
2. Social Narratives
Social narratives describe social cues and appropriate responses to social behavior and are useful in teaching a new social skill in advance of the situation. Social narratives often use pictures or cartoons to promote self-awareness and self-management. The most popular social narrative type is Social Stories by Carol Gray, which prescribes a specific framework for the narrative.
The renown educator Richard Lavoie developed the concept of social autopsy to help students understand social mistakes – after the fact. This method clarifies what exactly happened and then enables the child to see the cause/effect relationship between his behavior and people’s reaction to it.
4. Direct Instruction
The direct instruction method is the one that I use most frequently in our daily lives, albeit informally. Through direct instruction the teacher models (or states) correct behaviors and the students practices correct or alternative behavioral responses. One great tool for direct instruction is the Hidden Curriculum One-A-Day Calendar for Kids by the Blackwell Family. For each day of the calendar year, there is one specific need-to-know lesson. In our home, we read the calendar item at dinner time and then use it as a jumping off point for discussion and explanation.
These days, I often explain situations and teach the unwritten rules of our daily lives. I am never sure how much Greg has absorbed about the hidden curriculum on his own, so I explicitly try to help him “navigate body language and social mores in the uncharted areas between the words.” I guess I’ve been a bit over zealous lately however, because the other day Greg groaned and said, “Mom, can you please stop making everything into a lesson!” Note taken!
Understanding the hidden curriculum is vital to the acquisition of good social skills, independence and a fulfilling life. Most of us learn these rules naturally, but Aspies need a road map to our complex, elusive NT social world. So please – let us all practice tolerance. Let’s open our NT minds and try not to judge ‘misbehaviors’ too quickly…. That ‘rude’ person may just be an Aspie – seeing the world a little differently.
 Brenda Smith Myles, The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations (Autism Asperger Publishing Co., 2004), p. 1.