Possible Explanations Behind The Autistic Struggle to Understand Social Skills



Of the many issues that autistic people face that impact their daily lives, probably the one category of issues that impacts them the most are social issues. The inability to easily make friends, follow the social rules that govern our society, and have enough social sense to navigate the different institutions in our world greatly impact an autistic person’s ability to succeed in life, and impacts their quality of life heavily.


At the same time, those social rules differ highly in different social settings, and in different cultures, societies, and communities. Although differences exist between neurotypical people and autistic people all over the world, virtually every person is born into a culture, society, family, community, and country. Each person grows up within that family and community, and hopefully develops strong social ties within that community and gains acceptance in their family. I was born in the United States of America, in New York City, and my family moved to the Chicago suburbs when I was three, where I grew up. Those areas have social norms and customs that I had to learn in order to become a part of those communities.


At the same time, there can be different norms even among people of the same culture and country—when I traveled to East Texas on a speaking tour, I was immediately notified by the person who organized my presentations that I would be expected to abide by social norms quite different than the ones I had grown accustomed to in the Chicago suburbs.


Our social norms, beliefs, and values are not universal—they are cultural and societal. Anyone who travels around the world will soon realize that the cultural values of people in different countries and ethnic groups can have different values than where they live. As Americans, we have social norms that are American—and when we teach social rules to autistic individuals, we are teaching American social values. People in other countries have different social values than in America. As special education professor Dr. Brenda Smith Myles points out in her book The Hidden Curriculum (a term that she created to describe unwritten social rules), in Italy it is acceptable for mothers and daughters to walk down streets in public holding hands—but that would be inappropriate in America.


In addition, people with autism are impacted differently in different countries around the world. At an autism conference, I met an autistic woman from India who pointed out that having hypersensitive hearing is a much more major issue among Indian autistic people. She explained that the Bollywood movies shown in America that portray loud gatherings of large, Indian families are realistic, and that the auditory sensitivities in autism turn those gatherings into nightmares for autistic people in India. Likewise, issues that impact autistic people in our country don’t impact other autistic people in other countries.


Social rules exist in every culture and society. Some are spoken, but others are unwritten—something that Dr. Brenda Myles calls the “hidden curriculum.” In her book of the same name, Myles talks about how these rules are not taught to people but people still expect other people to know them. At the same time, it is precisely these unwritten rules that autistic people often struggle with. As a person with autism, I have struggled with understanding many unwritten rules of society—wondering why people have expected me to know them. And many other autistic individuals have as well. The autistic individual Judy Endow talks about her own personal struggles in her presentations and recent book about the hidden curriculum, and gives certain examples of her social mistakes—such as when she realized that an “adult” gift store is not typically a place to go buy a gift for your grandmother, even though she is an adult, and that you are expected to arrive early to a doctor’s appointment yet not to a friend’s house.


Throughout my life, I have tried to understand why it is so many typical people know social rules, and after long hours of thought, I have developed a theory based on the experiences I have had and my autistic friends as to why it is autistic people cannot instinctively pick up social rules the way typical people can. I have lived a lifetime of making many social mistakes, and sometimes upsetting people as a consequence of breaking social norms. I also am very sensitive to other people’s emotions and feel intense guilt over the fact that I have upset many people in my life. These feelings of guilt, combined with a desire to understand myself, compelled me to spend many hours thinking about the underlying causes of my social deficits.


Why? I have spent hours pondering that simple question in my head. Why is it that I seem to fail to understand the social rules, unwritten and written, that other people around me seem to instinctively know with ease? And why is it that I often do not agree with the social rules of my society, and struggle to understand why other people put up with rules that I personally feel are wrong? I have spent a lot of time thinking and pondering answers to these questions. In the process, however, I have comprised a possible theory, or explanation, to explain why the autistic mind struggles to understand social rules.


In this article, I hope to put in words what I have surmised for my own struggle. I hope that this theory can help other people with autism and their families understand the social deficits that impact their daily lives.


I have come to the conclusion that, although unwritten rules may not be written, they are still taught, contrary to what others might say. However, they are not taught verbally or by written instruction—they are taught by reinforced emotions. Typical people in a given culture and subculture all have a basic sense of what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable when they are socializing together, and most people do not want to make other people uncomfortable. And the rules for the neurotypicals in one culture are different than in another—an American neurotypical person has different unwritten rules he or she must follow than a Dutch neurotypical person, for example. Unwritten rules, I have come to believe, emerge based on those mutual feelings of comfort and discomfort. People engage in social behaviors with each other that make them comfortable—and create rules to prohibit things that make people uncomfortable. There is usually a link between what behaviors are inappropriate and what behaviors, if people engage in them, make other people uncomfortable. However, those rules are understood based on mutual understandings of what’s comfortable and what isn’t. A typical person, for example, does not pick their nose when they are with a group of friends because they know that if they do, they’d make their friends uncomfortable. And those people don’t pick their nose when they’re with him or her because, if they did, they would make him or her uncomfortable, and people typically don’t want to make other people uncomfortable.


At the same time, autistic people do not have the same feelings of comfort and discomfort that typical people have. Things that interest autistic people will bore neurotypical people, and things that interest neurotypical people bore autistic people. Likewise, many things that make neurotypical people comfortable, such as inappropriate behaviors or conversation topics, do not make autistic people uncomfortable. Throughout my life, I have noticed is that whenever I break a social rule or do something inappropriate, I may make other people around me uncomfortable and/or upset but do not make myself uncomfortable and/or upset. At the same time, when I am with my autistic friends, we will routinely discuss and engage in behaviors that would make many neurotypical people uncomfortable.


I’ll never forget the day I was told by my mother that I offended people by picking my nose. Such an idea shocked me, as I had never experienced a similar feeling myself when people picked their noise in front of me. I was at a public skating rink when my mother explained this to me, watching my sister at a skating lesson. I then spent the entire time suffering when my cheek started to itch, scared that I would offend people if I scratched it. I was shocked to find out that it was okay to scratch my cheek even though I could pick my nose, and it did not make sense—why is one action offensive when the other is not? To my autistic brain, both actions fall under the same category, and although I now know the rule—to this day, I have no feelings of discomfort when people pick their nose in front of me.


This is something very important for people without autism to understand. Although I was able to learn the rule against nose picking, I was not able to understand it instinctively. Why? Because my autistic brain does not share the same discomfort regarding nose picking that is shared by neurotypical people. And the fact is, no matter how much I learn and understand about how the neurotypical world, I will always be autistic inside. I have never felt that discomfort that neurotypical people have told me they feel when people pick their nose in front of them. And because autistic people do not have the ability to read social cues and facial expressions the way neurotypical people do, autistic people are more reliant on verbal instruction for social rules than typical people.


To most autistic people, if they have never felt discomfort that emerges when a social rule is broken, they cannot automatically assume that they are making other people uncomfortable when they break that social rule. Put it another way, if you have never felt uncomfortable when someone breaks a social rule in front of you, how would you automatically assume that you are making someone else uncomfortable when you break that rule? In my opinion, this is why many autistic people cannot understand unwritten rules instinctively—the same discomfort that neurotypical people feel and instinctively know that compels them not to break those rules does not exist among autistic people.


It is possible for those same autistic people to learn if they are at a functioning level that enables them to do so—but they often must be taught. At the same time, autistic people often cannot read the nonverbal cues that neurotypicals can that help them understand if other people are uncomfortable—therefore, autistic people have to rely more on verbal instruction for social skills understanding. But sadly, not every person gives them the verbal instruction autistic people need, expecting them to know rules that they just don’t.


Autistic people routinely mesh with social rules, written and unwritten, in society. However, although there are many different types of run-ins that autistic people have with social codes, I have concluded that there are two main challenges that autistic people face when functioning within our culture’s social rules.


First, many autistic people just don’t instinctively understand the reason, the rhyme, or the nature of certain social rules, and their brains cannot always understand the social complexity that governs our social world. As a result of trying to socialize with others within a system of rules that is difficult to understand, socializing can sometimes take a lot of mental brainpower, and many autistic individuals I know have to take breaks from socializing, even when they are with close friends.


One byproduct of the autistic person’s failure to instinctively “know” social rules has been discussed by the psychologist Dr. Tony Attwood. In his writings on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, he shares his observation that many autistic people often find that they relate better to their opposite gender. I have experienced this personally—although I am male, my best friends have been female most of my life, in part because people tend to expect others of their gender to instinctively understand the social rules tied to their gender, yet do not expect people of the opposite gender to do so. In addition, myself and others working with people with autism have concluded that this works both ways—many girls with autism find that they are just not able to understand and function within the complex social world of their non-autistic female counterparts, a world of social complexity that has been popularized by movies such as “Mean Girls,” “Sleepover,” and “Clueless,” and often find that they get along better with boys as a result, viewing their social world to be less complex. At the same time, many autistic boys find that they are often more accepted by girls than other boys, since boys tend to be less accepting of their differences than girls.


Meanwhile, autistic people also are often dependent on being verbally told many social rules, and often feel frustrated that people expect them to know unwritten rules rather than being told them. Why neurotypical people do not always give verbal instruction or are honest enough to tell them when they are breaking social rules boggles the minds of many autistic people. Remember that the social rules that neurotypical people just understand with ease can be hard to understand. Likewise, many autistic savants can instinctively figure out what day of the week a calendar date is on, but many neurotypical people could never perform that skill even if their lives depended on it.

Second, autistic people just don’t understand why certain social rules exist, and can view them as just random, meaningless arbitrary rules, or injustices. Our brains work differently than neurotypical people. We autistic people cannot always understand the reasons behind many social rules the way neurotypical people do. Sometimes this is because, as mentioned above, we do not have the same discomforts that neurotypical people do. For example, we autistic folk cannot always understand why we cannot pick our nose in front of other people, because we sometimes feel no discomfort when people pick their nose in front of us.


At the same time, because our brains think differently, we are often baffled by the reasons why neurotypical people behave the way that we do. For example, we autistic folk often fail to understand why it’s so inappropriate for us to perseverate on a single topic of interest because we do not get bored listening to one person perseverate on something the way typical people do. I have also experienced personally that when I associate with autistic people, we will often bond and discuss subjects that many people without autism would find very uncomfortable discussing. 


Making these conclusions and formulating this theory has helped me understand, for myself, the reasons why I have not been able to always follow social skills properly in social settings. Obviously, this does not apply to all individuals with autism—nothing does. But this is why I feel I have struggled with social issues in my life, and possibly this may be how some other individuals with autism feel as well.


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