Have you ever heard of the Sixth Sense? Not the creepy, 1999 movie where the little boy sees dead people. I mean your social sense, your sixth sense. Carol Gray, author of The Sixth Sense II, has called our ability to understand how others think, feel and perceive our sixth sense. Our social sense gives us an innate ability to know what is and is not socially acceptable, for the most part. Some social rules are learned, but most are not. Did anyone directly teach you how close is close enough when standing near someone? Did anyone teach you to make eye contact when interacting? Typically developing babies make eye contact to initiate and respond to social interactions before they can even talk. No one taught them this important social skill; they just have it, this sixth sense.
Our sixth sense allows us to basically, read the minds of others. We can make excellent guesses about what others think, know, feel and perceive. If I see someone wearing a JJ Watt shirt, I can make a reasonable guess that they are likely a Texan fan and that, if I wanted to, I could probably start a conversation with them about the current season (or JJ’s dreamy eyes if it is a woman). We know that others have different experiences than us and different perceptions. We can read facial expressions, gestures, and understand tone.
Typically developing children have this innate ability whereas kids with autism often do not. Often, typically developing children pick up on this difference in their autistic peers and have a harder time accepting this challenge than communication or behavioral challenges. I’ve seen kids as young as four years old in pre-Kindergarten classes instinctively tolerate self-stimulatory behavior, behavior “meltdowns” and gaps in communication without being told or trained. Ignoring lapses in social behavior seems to be harder to tolerate. When a peer with special needs is sitting too close, smells your hair while standing in line, takes your snack without comment, won’t relinquish the swing at recess and does not respond to the direct instruction “Give me that,” kids quickly lose patience. Over time, without talking to the typically developing peers specifically about this lack of the sixth sense in autistic children, these typically developing peers may start to bully or to shun the child with autism.
Over the years, I’ve done training’s for typically developing children on this topic of the Sixth Sense and I think it makes an enormous difference in their ability to accept our kids on the spectrum who lack these social skills. Often, children can tell someone is different, but they don’t understand why and more importantly, how to react when these unspoken social rules are broken. We need to be teaching typically developing children about this sixth sense and let them know that some kids don’t have it. Let them know “Harry doesn’t have this social sense that is why he smells your hair when he stands behind you in line. He doesn’t know that that is unexpected. When he does that, let him know ‘Hey, hands down. Stay in your bubble.’”
Not only do the typically developing children need to understand and need to have tools for when these incidents arise with autistic kids, but our kids on the spectrum need to be taught by their peers, that these behaviors are unexpected. Research shows that children learn best from their peers. We can teach many of these social skills directly (and in a future blog post, I will discuss how). But it is still critical for our kids on the spectrum to learn what is acceptable and what is not from their peers. And it is important to educate the peers.
The first step in building an inclusive community starts with education. These peers will one day be the adults that will interact with, employ, and socialize with our individuals on the spectrum. We need them to understand our kids on the spectrum so that this sixth sense impairment isn’t just weird behavior from weird people who should be avoided. With one in 68 of individuals being diagnosed with autism, it is important that the typically developing community understand these deficits and challenges. Let’s make sure we educate our typical kids and teach them that they can and should teach and interact with these autistic individuals just as they would anyone else.