Hidden Curriculum: The Autism Files

We live in a world full of unwritten social rules that most people just seem to intuitively understand, without direct instruction. We generally know what behaviour is expected of us in different situations and we have a good idea of the consequences of violating these social rules and behavioural expectations.

The number of rules is huge and varies across cultures, but here are some examples:

  • take turns speaking in a conversation;
  • don’t swear or tell off-coloured jokes to your teacher;
  • don’t tell someone their new outfit makes them look fat;
  • don’t stand too close to strangers,
  • don’t stare at strangers on public transport;
  • don’t hug someone you have just met;
  • follow your bosses instructions, even if you think he is an idiot and you have a better way of doing things.

These rules and expectations make up the hidden curriculum.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have great difficulty with social interactions and in deciphering the hidden curriculum. Having ASD is like being a traveller in a country with a different language and customs – it is easy to put your foot in it and offend the locals.

Individuals on the spectrum, including those with Asperger’s, often unwittingly break social and behavioural rules and they suffer the consequences. They can appear rude, arrogant, and deliberately disrespectful.

Not understanding the hidden curriculum can result in difficulty making and maintaining friendships. They may become social outcasts and the target for bullies. Their safety, self esteem and ability to concentrate and learn at school may be compromised. They can become anxious and fatigued as a result of hyper-vigilance in a hostile environment.

They not only break social rules but are often unable to interpret the subtle signs and non-verbal cues (body language) emanating from the person they are offending.

For example, a person with Asperger’s may monologue at length on a topic of special interest, such as trains or the benefits of rubbish collection, and be totally unaware that the recipient’s body language is indicating total boredom (yawning, looking away) with the one-sided conversation. They will be surprised when the listener suddenly has quite enough and snaps at them to shut up. They will wonder what has gone wrong.

The person with ASD needs to explicitly discover the hidden curriculum through the help of therapists, teachers or books.

People who are involved with individuals on the spectrum need to be aware of these issues and to assist them in learning the rules for different situations. Direct instruction and the use of social stories and role playing activities can all be useful strategies. A book on understanding body language is also a great resource.

With help the individual with ASD can discover the hidden curriculum and develop skills to successfully navigate this social world we live in.