The Hidden Curriculum

*Suggested Reading: "The Hidden Curriculum for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations for Adolescents and Young Adults"

The hidden curriculum can be defined as those invisible and unspoken rules of  society/community that we are all expected to follow, and often face negative reactions for failing to follow.

Examples? Sure:

*During checkout, the cashier may ask if you found everything ok. It's a way of being polite. They do not expect you to say "No, I couldn't find milk, eggs, flour, or lemons. Come help me find them"

*It's fine if a toddler on a plane is loudly singing the ABC song to himself. If he's still loudly singing 10 minutes later, his parents will start getting some very angry looks from other passengers 

*Do not ever get onto an elevator and stand with your back to the door, directly facing the other people on the elevator

*When you see a "free samples" sign, it is fine to take one. It is much less fine to take 5

*Any look towards another person that exceeds a few seconds is considered "staring". People may make an odd face at you if you don't break off the stare when they catch you

And on, and on, and on.

Teaching play skills? Sure, we have a program for that. How about language? Not a problem. Toileting? Of course. But the difficulty with teaching hidden curriculum is in its very unclear shades of gray. If typically developing adults have a hard time navigating invisible social waters, then how well do you think a child with Autism will do?

I think another difficulty with teaching in this invisible domain of social skills, is trying to do so within a structured therapy session. Social skills don't always fit into neat boxes, or a jam-packed therapy session from 2-4. To work on these areas of gray we need to go OUT THERE.
Out there is simply into the child's community, where they live, work, play, or attend school. It is often through being out and about with my clients that I see areas of deficit I was previously unaware of, and think to myself "Ooooo, we need to work on that".

Yet another difficulty with teaching in this invisible domain is that the wrong answer is not always obvious. Just think of someone you know who is a bit abrasive or loud. At social gatherings, you can see other people giving each other the side eye, obsessively checking their watch, or clearly saying lies to leave a conversation with that abrasive or loud person. But does the person seem to notice those cues? Not always, no. Unless someone plainly says "Hey look: you are shouting and spraying spit on my shirt, and you're also kind of ignorant and boring. I don't want to talk to you anymore", that person may never truly understand how others perceive them. And it's unlikely that will happen, because it would be extremely rude to tell someone that! So the person does not get the blunt feedback they need, because to give that blunt feedback would make the other person seem abrasive and rude.

Social skills are difficult. Like, Jenga difficult.

So what can be done?

  • Realize that this invisible area of social development will not magically descend upon your child like fairy dust. It will likely need to be taught, very intentionally, and with lots of generalization/real life examples.
  • Don't expect it to be easy, or simple. It won't be.
  • As much as you can, expose your child to same age peers. I spend a lot of time at work watching kids interact, and the results can be hilarious. Kids say things adults would never say, but that kids with poor social skills need to hear. Like: "Oh my GOSH you already said that like 4 times! I don't care".
  • Evidence based strategies such as video modeling and social strips/social stories can be particularly helpful to break down complex social skill instruction, particularly if the learner has the communicative and cognitive ability to follow a story.
  • Stop being so nice to your child. I'm not saying be a jerk, but the honest feedback your child gets on the playground won't exactly be dipped in sugar first. Practice giving in the moment feedback when your child interrupts someone, stands too close, or smells like they need a shower.
  • If you are already receiving ABA therapy services, ask if social groups are an option.
  • Make sure your child understands that social rules are a complicated matter. Almost every social rule has an "except when...." caveat. This is not a concept that will be helped by black and white thinking; flexible thinking will be key.

For more information about Hidden Curriculum, look for the publications of Brenda Smith Myles

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