Monday, September 19, 2011

Rules of the Road

Everyday most of us travel through an incredibly complex social world.  A world where we are continually adjusting our behaviors based on the situation, and where nonverbal cues, such as body language and facial expression inform our every turn.  Certain subjects are appropriate in certain situations with certain people, and you have to, almost instinctively, know which is which.

And the contradictions!  Be polite and courteous - but don’t be taken advantage of.  Be honest - but tell a “white lie” to spare someone’s feelings.  Be interested in other people - but don’t pry.  Share your own interests - but don’t be overbearing.

When you stop and think about it, it’s amazing that anyone can figure it out.

And that’s the challenge for people with autism, most can’t “figure it out” instinctively. This complex society, with its undefined and changing set of rules, traditions and mores, must feel like driving around a large city with no signage or maps.  

Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe some people with autism are blissfully unaware of the scope and contradictions of the social environment. 

Sometimes it seems that way with William.  He will cheerfully greet an older student at the bus stop and seem almost non-plussed if that greeting isn’t returned.  He doesn’t know that he is a “lower rank” and shouldn’t reach “up the ladder”, so he doesn’t feel particularly spurned.

He will make a comment, such as “your breath smells bad” or “your house is really messy” that seems incredibly rude to us.  However, he’s really just making an observation, and he has no judgement.  We judge it, and judge him for saying it, but he is just noticing and remarking.

The world should be more like William’s.  Where there is no judgement, just an observation.  Where there is no social rank, and friendliness is the order of the day.

But it isn’t.  

So, we try to codify it for him.  Make a map of sorts, and an atlas.  And make it simple enough to remember and follow, but complex enough to accurately represent the labyrinthian society.

Luckily there are resources for this.  William is working on individual behavior skills  with a specialist at Fraser Child & Family Center.  (Last week he introduced the “filter” concept.)  Their long-term goal is to have appropriate social interactions 80% of the time.

Which would be a good goal for all of us!


  1. Great article! I'm still trying to figure out the balance of all these different "rules."

  2. Hi Laura--

    Lori Vossler-Yang told me about your blog. I too write a blog about my adventures with my son who has Asperger's called Finding Borneo. ( ) I can totally relate to everything you write!!!! Thanks so much for sharing your heart and soul. It's easy to feel like I'm the only one in Edina sometimes...

  3. It is hard enough to teach these social rules to “neuro-typical” children ( a new term for me). you really hit the nail on the head with this post.

    I agree: "The world should be more like William’s. Where there is no judgement, just an observation. Where there is no social rank, and friendliness is the order of the day." Perhaps we wouldn't be so afraid of each other and so much could be accomplished. Imagine how beautiful the world would be and how much happier and light-hearted we would all be.