Is the lunch hour really an hour long? Or is it 30 minutes? Perhaps there’s no break at all and it is eaten at your desk whilst you work? In work cafeteria does one plop themselves right next to the boss and start talking about the weather? What about a delicate situation where you are asked a question and a certain coworker jumps in to answer before you even have a chance to talk? Is there a difference in the way one addresses this “talking out of turn” when the coworker is your equal or your supervisor? What exactly is the type of dress that is acceptable on “casual Fridays”?
These are just some of the many questions that almost no one discusses, most employees seem to automatically know the answer to, and for those who don’t know, become social outcasts very quickly – often to the point of losing their job (Adapted from personal communication with Brenda Smith Myles, December, 2004). Studies have shown that the ability to successfully socialize with others is the largest variable to employment and career success rather than strictly being able to do one’s job. While a person on the autism spectrum may have no difficulty in mastering the challenges of meeting and surpassing the requirements for a position, it is the social interaction component that often present the greatest challenges to success. However, there are ways of surmounting this barrier to employment and career success.
Learning those Unwritten Rules through Understanding the Hidden Curriculum
Most people learn the unwritten rules of social interact by observation, followed by imitation; in an almost automatic manner. For example, most people intuitively understand the concept of the personal space bubble which varies between none with intimate others, to about 3-4 feet between coworkers, to remaining 6 or more feet away from strangers. People on the autism spectrum can learn these guidelines as well. However, being able to implement them requires direct instruction. Fortunately there are many resources to employ. The Hidden Curriculum, as written by Brenda Smith Myles, Melissa Trautman, and Rhonda Schelvan in 2004 is chock full of ideas for learning these unwritten, undiscussed rules of the workplace, school, the community, etc.
One of the many tools in this book is known as the Power Card. Developed in 2001 by Elizabeth Gagnon in a book titled The Power Card Strategy. Gagnon describes a two-step approach where a hero or model –based on a special interest – experiences the same challenges faced by the person on the autism spectrum. However, there’s a turning point where this hero or model realizes that a change in behavior is needed, comes up with a number of solutions to effect this change, and achieves success (Gagnon, 2001). The second step of the approach is place on a 3 by 5 index card a few lines indicating the role model’s wish to share these successful strategies, the suggestions are listed, and there is a picture of the role model.
For example, suppose “Sam” gets frustrated when he does not understand what is expected of him next at a work site. Upon getting frustrated, Sam begins to yell and pound his desk, disturbing coworkers. We also know that Sam has a special interest in the history of fighter airplanes and the pilots who tested them.
In this case, at a time when Sam is calm, he would be told a short story (at his comprehension level) about a test pilot Chuck Yeager, who when frustrated in flight would pound on the instrument panel and yell at his copilot. The “plot” develops to where Chuck the pilot understands that this is a poor way to behave and has come up with 3 ways to calm himself down as frustration builds. These three ways might be to count from one to ten or take five deep breaths or even take a break to look at a flying magazine.
A Power Card developed for Sam for handling frustration might look like the example below as described in the chapter “Supporting Successful Employment” I coauthored with Thomas Duffy, Robert Oppermann, and Michael Smith for the 32nd Institution on Rehabilitation Issues: Rehabilitation of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders in 2007.
Chuck Yeager learns to deal with Frustration
Chuck Yeager, loves to fly his planes and to talk about when he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Sometimes when Chuck did not understand what the traffic controller is telling him he would yell and slam his fist down on the controls of the airplane. However, Chuck realized that this was not a good way to behave and has come up with some ways to deal with his frustrations that he would like to share with you.
Chuck Yeager wants you to choose one of the following three ways to calm you down. If you are still frustrated you can try another way.
1. Take five deep breaths, exhaling slowly after each one.
2. Close your eyes and slowly count backwards from 10 to 1.
3. Go to a quiet place and look at flying magazines.
Other Methods, Sources, and Summary
Many other tools and books are available for helping persons on the autism spectrum learn the Hidden Curriculum of employment as well as many other aspects of life. Some other examples in the Hidden Curriculum book include Situations–Options–Consequences–Choices–Strategies–Simulation (SOCCSS), Social Storiestm by Carole Gray, Cartooning, and video modeling. Books that explain the rules of society can also be helpful. Some of these “incidental books on the Hidden Curriculum” include, How rude: The teenager’s guide to good manners, proper behavior, and not grossing people out by Alex Packer, and any of the “Miss Manners” books on proper etiquette. Even books on body language and nonverbal communication such as The definitive book of body language by Barbara and Allan Pease can be very useful tools in providing the direct instruction on reading the various postures making up nonverbal communication.
Gaining a greater understanding of the Hidden Curriculum will help people on the autism spectrum persons on the autism spectrum achieve success in employment, at home, school, or anywhere social interaction is required.© Stephen Shore