As humans, we tend to be wary of those that are different from us, especially socially. There are tons of hidden rules and expectations in any society, and we refer to them as The Hidden Curriculum. See our previous article introducing the Hidden Curriculum concept if you are unfamiliar with this term.
It is important to think about these hidden rules in different settings when trying to teach someone with autism social skills and when including them into the community. Folks with autism tend to lack this social awareness that many of us pick up on without even realizing it. Do you remember a time when someone sat you down to discuss the hidden rules related to public restrooms or sports games? Probably not. Many times, our friends on the spectrum need direct instruction related to these practices, ideally before they are required to function in those settings.
Have you ever seen the movie Mean Girls? What’s great about that movie is that it shows how difficult it is for someone who is new to the school setting (Cady aka Lindsay Lohan) to fit in and learn the hidden rules at school. Throughout the film she often requires direct instruction from her peers and sometimes, unfortunately, she learns the rules the hard way. What are some of the unspoken rules/expectations in that movie?
1. No one sits at the “Plastics” lunch table without permission. (Really, you don’t sit with any ‘clique’ without permission).
2. You DO NOT under any circumstances fall in love with the most popular girl in school’s ex-boyfriend. (“Ex-boyfriends are off-limits to friends. That’s just, like, the rules of feminism.”).
3. When the popular mean girl tells you she likes your clothing, she’s making fun of you. (“Ohmygosh! I love your bracelet! Where’d you get it?”)
4. It’s cool to make fun of and belittle less popular kids aka the Burn Book (not true in real life)
5. Girls use social warfare as opposed to physical battles to fight other girls (except for that time mayhem ensued with the girls fighting in the halls)
6. Cool girls dress scantily and provocatively for Halloween (and when dancing in the school’s Christmas talent show)
7. Cool kids throw parties when their parents are out of town
8. What clothes you wear affects your popularity. (Oh, and we wear pink on Wednesdays).
Hidden Rules at School
So let’s think about some hidden rules at school as well as the hidden expectations at school. Some rules may be school or region specific, but some tend to apply to most situations.
1. The cool kids sit in the back of the room/bus/auditorium (mainly for older kids and adults).
2. Often, girls take restroom breaks together (no one is quite sure why)
3. If you’re going to pass notes in class, be discreet!
4. Clubs and extracurricular activities can either help or hurt your popularity (i.e. Mathletes are for nerds and sports are for cool kids).
5. Do not chew gum in class.
6. Whisper in the library.
7. During downtime, use ear buds to listen to music versus playing it for all to hear
8. Find friends to sit with at lunch. Sitting with teachers or all alone is not cool.
9. Roughhousing and physical fighting at school is not okay and will result in serious consequences.
10. A teacher’s pet is someone who does whatever the teacher wants and goes above and beyond to make the teacher happy (and this is considered not cool by peers).
11. When talking to teachers, use a more formal way of speaking versus casual tones that you’d use with friends
12. If your grades are suffering, talk with your teacher about extra credit opportunities and tutoring.
13. In college, spring break is a time for partying! (although alternative spring breaks with Habitat for Humanity is an excellent personal growth experience too!)
14. In school, it is not okay to wear pajamas unless you’re in elementary school and it is a designated school-wide spirit day. In most colleges, it is okay to wear pajama-like clothing (and often it is expected).
15. Swearing at school is not okay when you’re young. Swearing at school should be done discreetly and out of earshot of teachers when you’re older.
16. It’s cool to drive yourself to school once you get your license
17. Do not announce or discuss bathroom issues upon returning to class
18. Change into PE clothes in the locker room, not the hallway
19. When playing tag at recess, touch the other person softly when tagging
20. It is okay to be loud on the playground. When it’s time to go back inside, you must lower your voice to speaking volume.
21. Never throw food in the lunch room.
22. During a fire drill, go with your class to the nearest exit. This is not the time to use the restroom.
23. Ask someone if you want to dance with them at a school dance. If they say “No” say “Ok” and walk away.
24. When saying the Pledge of Allegiance do not talk to friends or laugh.
25. During silent reading, read in your head.
26. While working, look at your own paper or book.
27. Do not talk about guns or violence at school.
28. In middle and high school, teachers often have different rules for their class. It’s important to know the rules in each class.
29. Do not tattle on what every student is doing wrong. It’s up to the teacher to talk to those students.
30. When the teacher tells another student to stop doing something, that rule will apply to the rest of the class. So if the teacher tells one student no talking during work, that rule also goes for the remainder of the class.
The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations by Brenda Smith Myles, Melissa L. Trautman, and Ronda L. Schelvan is an excellent resource for teaching these and other Hidden Curriculum rules. It is important to teach these rules to our kids on the spectrum, but it is also important to explain that just because it might be a hidden rule at school or expectation does not make it okay, especially those related to popularity, social hierarchy, gender and socio-economic status or stereotypes.
Nichole O’Donnell is a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst and serves as the Community Outreach Director for Including Kids. Since beginning her work at Including Kids in 2007, Nichole has worked with children, adolescents and adults as a direct-care therapist, inclusion shadow, Case Supervisor, Reading Specialist, Project Manager, and Community Outreach Director. Nichole has a passion for teaching social skills and executive functioning skills and for sharing her knowledge with parents, staff and the community.