Skunk Hair, Autism and Social Understanding

There is a saying, “love makes the world go round,” but for real it is NOT love. Instead, it is the hidden curriculum that makes the world go round! Hidden curriculum is all that social information that most people know even though they were never actually taught it. An example is the rule “don’t pick your nose” with the hidden curriculum being it is perfectly fine to pick your nose as long as nobody sees you doing it. Many people with autism have difficulty with hidden curriculum. Their brains are not wired to allow them to automatically pick up this untaught, unspoken social information. This has all sorts of consequences from embarrassing to serious (job loss). I had to intentionally learn lots of hidden curriculum before I could feel a part of the world going round.

Sometimes getting caught in a situation of unknown hidden curriculum is quite embarrassing in the moment, but later makes a funny story. Because hidden curriculum is so important and because people generally remember things that cause them to laugh, I am going to tell you a funny story.

One time I accompanied my friend Kate to a doctor appointment. Before leaving Kate had to go for a blood test. The woman in the lab had the most beautifully unusual hair. It was shoulder length jet-black hair parted down the center with about a one-inch pure white outgrowth from the center part. As Kate turned in her paper work and we took a seat I said, “What beautiful skunk hair!”

Kate shushed me and whispered, “Wait ‘til we’re done here.” So I did. After leaving the lab Kate had to schedule another appointment at the front desk. While standing there waiting in a different section of the building, i.e. “being done here” as in – now being done in the lab – I again commented, “I really liked that woman’s skunk hair.”

Again, Kate shushed me, this time telling me to whisper. Just then the appointment secretary was ready to schedule with her so I thought it best to wait. I went out to the car. When Kate got in the car I dutifully whispered, “I just loved that woman’s skunk hair. Did you?”

Kate asked, “Why are you whispering?”

I replied, “You told me to whisper.”

This example clearly illustrates the hidden curriculum variable of changing circumstances in that each time Kate gave me a directive I complied. It didn’t work well because each time I complied we were at a new location. I also am not very good at modulating my voice, which Kate picked up on and attempted to help me compensate by instructing me to whisper. By the time I did so we were in the car and there was no longer any need to whisper. And only then did Kate explain that even though I love the black and white contrast of skunk hair most people would interpret my compliment as derogatory.

In the past eight years since this incident happened I have intentionally learned as much hidden curriculum as possible. I have written about my journey and about the various strategies I have tried along the way. If you would like to read about my quest please see Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult.

I went on to co-author (with Brenda Smith Myles and Malcolm Mayfield) a second book very important to autistic adults and employment called The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment.

10569087_10152329927438177_3423572218823525840_nOh, the possibilities in a new day dawning!

REFERENCES

Endow, J. (2013). The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Originally written for and published by Ollibean on May 9, 2014