Aspergers and learning The Rules

This week’s Weekend Interview in the Wall Street Journal features Temple Grandin, “easily the most famous autistic woman in the world.” It’s a fascinating read, particularly for anyone with an Aspergers child. Growing up in the 1950’s, doctors pushed to institutionalize Grandin as her autistic qualities became obvious. Instead, her mother hired a speech therapist and a nanny and forced her daughter to interact with adults and spend hours practicing basic social skills.

Today, Temple Grandin is a doctor of animal science at Colorado State University and the designer of more humane slaughterhouse systems that are used worldwide. She also writes and lectures internationally as a first-person expert on autism.

Her cadence is unusual, staccato-like, and her pale blue eyes sometimes drift off into the distance. But she seems a different person from the young woman in the film, for whom being hugged, let alone schmoozing at a cocktail party, seemed physically painful. What’s changed?

“The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic,” she says, “because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play.”

As I said, the whole article is well worth reading, but I was particularly struck by Grandin’s advice on how to help an Aspergers child learn to function more comfortably in the outside world. Doubtless influenced by her own mother, who “insisted that Temple practice proper etiquette, go to church, [and] interact with adults at parties,” Grandin says,

It’s about hard work. Young children need 20 or 30 hours a week of one-on-one time with a committed teacher or mentor. Money, Ms. Grandin says, should not be an obstacle. If you can’t afford a professional teacher, find volunteers through your church or synagogue, she says. Parents need to teach 1950s-style social rules “like please and thank you, basic table manners, how to shop.”

“1950s-style social rules.” Back then, The Rules were explained pretty clearly and explicitly, by parents, teachers, neighbors, or even random passerby when necessary. There was a basic, shared understanding of how one ought to behave, and an expectation that society had a responsibility to pass that understanding along to the next generation. “Do this. Don’t do that,” as the 1971 hit “Signs” rather unenthusiastically put it.

Today, instead, American society depends much more upon a sort of peer-to-peer absorption approach to social norms. With the traditional venues for social instruction (family, community, church) fading in their authority and significance, most youth learn basic social norms through entertainment or from their peers, through observation and adaptation. Gallons of ink have been spilled chronicling the underwhelming results of this approach, and my point here is not to add thereto. Instead, I’m interested particularly in how this approach affects those with autistic tendencies.

Reading the interview with Temple Grandin, it seems that our lack of explicit social instruction must be doing a tremendous and particular disservice to Aspergers children. Gradin isn’t the first I’ve heard liken living with Aspergers to being in a play. You learn how you are supposed to behave, and you fill that “role”; it’s actually a considerable relief, avoiding the frustration and confusion of continually violating norms you didn’t know existed.

The instruction must be explicit though. By definition, a child with autistic tendencies isn’t going to pick up on the cues that his peers use to learn social norms. He needs to actually be taught what other children might be able to unconsciously pick up. And yet, more than ever before, our society tends to avoid offering the clear, specific guidance that such a child needs.

I’m not suggesting that a greater social willingness to articulate and teach the rules of social behavior would be some magic bullet to make life easy for those with Aspergers. However, I do wonder how much it would help, not so much in broad strokes but with those brief little interactions that could help create the explicit, clear roadmap that is so important to individuals with Aspergers.

And… I feel like I should conclude with some insightful commentary, but I’m really just throwing this out here as food for thought. I was struck by it while reading the article, and hoped some of my readers would find it similarly interesting.