Hidden Curriculum: The Autism Files

Hidden Curriculum: The Autism Files

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.

20 thoughts on “Hidden Curriculum: The Autism Files

  1. I wish more people would take the time to understand the difficulties in understanding that hidden curriculum our children face. But then that is why we as parents are their advocates, and why we have to teach them to advocate for themselves.

  2. written beautifully with clarity and humor. enjoyed reading it and learned something too, it piques my interest because of the differences in perception the condition entails, because in a way i relate to that, can sense how a certain clarity of perception might encounter difficulty in subtle control issues around behavior, reaction maybe to stimuli may be much more dramatic and overwhelming to a child especially with the condition. awareness on the part of parents is so key. if kids are encouraged to become who they are while being able to go forward with a softer edge in stressful social interaction, and to be comfortable with themselves, they will be prepared for a good outcome in their endeavors down the line

  3. Reading this brought back memories of an old childhood friend. She had Asperger’s and back then (1970’s) they were just beginning to understand it. What you are doing here on your blog and in your life is profound and I think you may not fully comprehend the gift you are giving those whose lives you touch. I wish my friend and her parents had met a Gabrielle, it would have made their lives so much better.

    1. Your so sweet Val. I think if we all look back to our time at school we will all remember someone who had Aspergers – maybe the person who stays in the library all lunchtime, the one who is a bit clumsy in sport, the one with the encylopedic knowledge who talks with a strange prosody.

  4. I think sometimes it’s easy to forget how complex social interactions and signals can be … and what a challenge those ‘invisible’ rules can present.

  5. I have not had any personal experience of knowing someone with ASD, but read ‘Dibs in Search of Self’ when I was still at school when ASD was rarely spoken about and have seen a documentary on Temple Grandin, so find your insights really interesting – I can only try to imagine what it must be like for a person with this condition trying to negotiate the world and also the heartbreak, frustration and exhaustion experienced by their families. Bb.

    1. Temple Grandin is an amazing woman – I read her book but want to watch that documentary as well. Another good book to read is ‘the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime’ – a young adult book which is a bestseller 🙂

    1. I just found out (following a link to amazon.com) that there is a book Aletha : ‘The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations’ by Brenda Smith Myles et al., I think I’ll get it 🙂

  6. Thank you so much for this article, Gabrielle. I have been so entranced by a blogger on Blogspot called My Five Men. She has triplet sons who are all autistic, plus one other son. She has such an amazing and positive outlook on life and I really enjoy her posts. Your post has helped me understand a little of what life with autism entails.

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