Social understanding and communication are two areas impacted by autism neurology. The way this plays out is different from one autistic individual to the next. Typically, for autistics I have worked with, this means that they do not always pick up social information from the world around them through observation only as most people do. Instead, they sometimes need direct instruction concerning information their autistic neurology doesn’t allow them to automatically pick up and learn.
It can be difficult for some autistic people to sort out what things are okay to say and what things are not okay to say in various social situations. This was true for a high school student I worked with during the past year. William very much enjoyed talking with others, but was asking questions and making comments that were not appreciated by teaching staff. Worse, these comments and questions were causing other students to avoid him rather than include him in social exchanges. Each time teaching staff explained to William that his comment had been offensive and had caused other students to move away from him William would feel bad, say he would not make that comment again and could even come up with alternative comments to use in the future to replace the offensive comment. After two years not much had changed in William’s ability to refrain from using offensive comments or ask questions that were considered rude or inappropriate.
Autistic people may not automatically know how to respond to rhetorical social questions such as “How are you?” or automatically reciprocate in social pleasantries such as “good morning.” This is not because they are rude, obnoxious, don’t care, or any of the other assumed reasons people attribute to this behavior. Instead, it is because all social information is not automatically picked up and used by a person with an autistic brain. The autistic brain simply works differently. Even so, autistic people can learn those things their particular brain hasn’t allowed them to automatically pick up.
Just like people of all ages can learn, so is it that autistic people of all ages can learn. It is an utterly sad state of affairs that this even needs to be said, but unfortunately, it needs to be said. Too often I see autistic children being babysat rather than being taught at school. When I ask about academic curriculum being used, I am told, “Oh, he has autism” as if this is an answer to my question.
One way people learn is from consequences. For example, if you leave your car parked outside with the windows down and it rains, the natural consequence is that your car seats will get wet. Sometimes a person with authority over another engineers a consequence for certain behaviors as a way to decrease the frequency of unwanted behaviors. For example, a mother or a caregiver might decide that if hitting occurs at the park there will be no going to the park for the next two weeks. This sort of engineered consequence for unwanted behavior works for most people most of the time. It is why we use it to successfully teach our children to become responsible citizens – responsible for themselves, their behavior, their belongings and beyond. These kinds of consequences rarely work well for individuals with autism.