When is the last time you felt completely out of your element? We may never travel far enough away from home to experience something completely different. Another world that we couldn’t have imagined, let alone navigate on our own. Some consider staying in one place being consistent and comfortable, lucky even, while others may crave diverse experiences, new environments to discover. No matter where you go, there are hidden rules, and navigating those can either be a challenge or fairly easy, but in the world of autism, the hidden rules aren’t as obvious and sometimes need to be taught.
Hidden Rules in Another World
To pick on the travel industry, steadily capitalizing on our need to prepare in some way for a new experience, there are more than enough books dedicated to other countries geography, culture, and “must visit” sites. Flashy images on their covers that allure, contents organized by the most visible and well-known sites, but don’t necessarily contain unique information. Now for the language barrier, making it significantly harder to send or receive useful communication in the hopes of enjoying the experience. Many people do not enjoy travel for these and a multitude of other reasons, but if you were feeling adventurous, you might risk it.
Upon arriving, the new place would be and feel unfamiliar, regardless of how much you looked up images, purchased travel guides, or relied on a travel agent to help you plan the perfect trip. Things may go well, but you may still have gotten lost in the airport, attempted to check in at the wrong hotel, gave or received poor directions, or maybe even tried to say that you were embarrassed but ended up saying you were pregnant…gotta love the Spanish language! Your dream vacation just became a nightmare partly because you didn’t know the rules, not the ones that were written down or those that could be studied, but the ones that were hidden assumed to be known by all and taken for granted.
Hidden Rules in The World of Autism
What then of the individual that feels lost in this way much if not all of the time in his or her home, neighborhood, school, and community? The world of autism is as vastly complex as it is unique, and is experienced by individuals that look at and interpret their surroundings in different ways. One of the several items that are troublesome to this disability population is a lack of naturally learning and understanding the social norms, the hidden rules, or hidden curriculum that resides in each of our surrounding environments.
The rules don’t seem to be hidden at all when identified on an intuitive level in social situations by individuals without autism. In fact, it is expected that one should just know how to act in a public park, restroom, mall, restaurant, waiting in line, and in nearly any shared space. What is expected is not always what you see in real world situations, but the expectations remain, making it of utmost importance to identify the hidden rules specifically, then teach them in the exact environments in which they exist. This method provides the greatest chance for success for individuals with autism.
A Teaching Moment on The Hidden Rules in The World of Autism
How then, do we teach the hidden rules in the world of autism effectively? Much like the scenario in which a travel book is purchased, there are several books out there that can be used. The Hidden Curriculum for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations for Adolescents and Young Adults, by Brenda Smith Myles, Melissa L. Trautman, and Ronda L. Schelvan is one of the most practical, in spite of its lengthy title. It is only 100 pages long and presents items in ways that are easily understood and is an excellent resource for those of us that may not be able to pick up on all of the obscure rules flying around us in any given situation.
One of the most interesting individuals I have worked with in the recent past started a session with me with great anticipation. He pulled up a video on his phone and played it with excitement. I watched in awe and disbelief as it played, showing him on the upper walkway of a motel where he proceeded to dump about 30 gallons of water out of a tote. He had somehow filled it with water in the room and pulled to the edge of his door before it was dumped. To say that this was an excellent opportunity to identify the hidden rules that exist when staying at a motel is quite an understatement indeed. Thankfully, no legal action was taken by the motel.
Over the next hour, we proceeded to break down the event itself, determining that the reason the action was taken was to capture the sound of the water because it was like the ocean (incidentally, the motel was within earshot of the coast where waves were crashing). We also had a discussion, labeling each of the known and unknown expectations or rules on the whiteboard, using the words that he provided, focused on the specifics of this event.
A few of the rules we established were:
Inside the Motel Room
- Water stays in the shower, water stays in the sink, water stays in the tub and is drained as soon as the bath is finished.
- Water is used for drinking.
- Water is cleaned up with a towel if spilled because water can damage the floor.
Outside the Motel Room
- Water is used for cleaning.
- Water is used for drinking.
- It is not safe for others to pour a lot of water where they will be walking. It is not polite to pour water onto the walkway because it will spill over and may get someone wet.
- Water is essential for all marine life, so it is not good to waste water.
Although we were unable to reinforce the rules at the motel, which would have been ideal, he has not repeated the action to my knowledge.
This situation is unique, but in future articles, we will specifically identify hidden rules in typical environments. Hopefully, this introduction will spark an interest in how much attention is paid to the rules that surround us each day whether they are overt or covert.
Joel C. Johnson is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and serves as the Assistant Community Outreach Director for Including Kids. He has six years experience working with young adults with autism and enjoys the uniqueness of this disability population. Joel worked at Utah State University as an assistant track and field coach for several years and as the coordinator of the EmployAbility clinic for nearly two years, helping to develop a program placing individuals with autism and other disabilities into competitive employment. He understands educational, public, private, for profit, and nonprofit business work environments and cultures. He is dedicated to providing the highest quality services to his clients and their families, and is an advocate for individuals with disabilities to experience full community inclusion.