In our last article, we discussed the analogy of being dropped in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language and compared this to children with autism who struggle to understand spoken language. While just making sense of the words can be a challenge for early learners or lower-functioning children, difficulty with language permeates all the way to higher-functioning individuals – but in a different way.
Children (and adults) with autism who understand the literal meanings of spoken words may still struggle with what is known as social pragmatics. This refers to the use of language in a social context. A few examples of social pragmatics skills are:
• Understanding and using appropriate body language
• Reading others’ facial expressions and nonverbal cues
• Maintaining appropriate distance from others
• Initiating and maintaining conversations
• Deciding what topics/comments to avoid in certain situations
Most people learn these skills without being taught explicitly, but many people with autism need direct teaching of these concepts. They may not automatically pick up on these unwritten social rules that dictate our interactions. Autism researcher Brenda Smith Myles refers to this as the “Hidden Curriculum”— social rules that are expected and assumed but never taught directly. Consider the following situations and the hidden curriculum rules that are violated in each one:
• Daniel is telling a peer about something that happened at recess. His peer keeps looking around and checking his watch, but Daniel keeps talking.
• Matt enters a fairly empty movie theater. He sits down directly next to a couple who he does not know.
• Alana’s friend is going a school dance. She asks, “How do I look?” and Alana tells her, “That dress is too tight, it makes you look fat.”
• Parker is sitting with classmates at lunch. He hears one peer say, “Me and my brother went to the baseball game.” Parker tells his peer that it is grammatically incorrect to say, “Me and my brother.”
• Janine loves talking about endangered birds. She sees a group of girls from her class on the playground, so she goes up to them and begins telling them all about the endangered birds of Southwest America.
• Samantha is assigned to work on a group project. When the group meets to work, she says to her classmates, “Do you mind if I leave early, because I really want to go watch the soccer game?” No one answers, but her classmates look at one another. One of them frowns and says, “I guess so, if you really have to.” Samantha leaves early because her classmates said it was okay.
In the scenarios above, none of the children did anything objectively immoral or broke any written rules – but they made severe social errors that will impact the way they are viewed and their ability to communicate effectively with others. Without explicit instruction, these children may not realize their mistakes. There is so much that we communicate beyond the words we say, and so many unwritten rules that we follow and expect others to follow – yet these are rarely taught. But so crucial is this piece of the communication puzzle that the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) actually includes a new diagnosis called Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder, alongside Autism Spectrum Disorder.
For children who do not automatically learn these unspoken social rules, explicit teaching is a necessity. This can be done on a situational basis as issues arise but should also be taught proactively, before children enter situations where they are likely to err. Most importantly, we are more poised to help if we don’t assume that they understand or know a certain social rule just because most children have picked up on it. Direct teaching and practice are our best tools for bringing the hidden curriculum to light.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.