aspergers and social choicesMaterial abounds on learning nonverbal cues and social skills. This blog dives deeper into the questions, “How do I figure out social rules?” and “Why should I bother learning them?”People with AS and Nonverbal Learning Disabilities don’t automatically get social rules; neurotypicals seem to absorb these rules without even being aware of it. Social rules can be taught; they can also be learned by watching and listening carefully. Social rules can be pretty complicated and not necessarily consistent or logical.

People with AS (Aspies) and NLD are usually smart and advanced in their areas of interest. They also are logical and often inflexible thinkers. It’s easy for them to dismiss rules that make no sense, and not really listen to ideas that seem unimportant. My clients sometimes rebel against rules at home, school or work.

One of my clients was a third grader. His crime was arguing with a teacher. In the lunchroom, he was required to eat his sandwich before his brownie. He would argue that they ended up in the same place, so what was the point? He was right.

I often invite Aspies and NLD clients to think as anthropologists, to imagine investigating a culture completely different from their own. If you’re in Japan, you automatically bow to indicate respect. In some Middle Eastern countries allowing the bottom of your shoe to be seen is insulting. It’s not a question of making sense.

Then we turn this awareness towards home. Even in a single country or town, we don’t live in a single culture. Each different setting of life in the neurotypical world – the family, school or job, the basketball team, the church – usually has its own culture and expectations.

A 4th grade boy with NLD hugged people to express positive feelings. He was joining a town basketball team. We talked about the culture of the team and how the boys express approval – a comment, a fist bump, and a slap on the behind. He very much wanted to “fit in,” so he did the same. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to slap on the behind in class; the rules are different. He had to watch boys in class to “get” the rules there.

I find most NLD clients don’t want to argue with social rules; they simply don’t “get” them.  A middle school considered a boy potentially dangerous and called me. He had limited facial expression, didn’t join other kids and was “provocative.”  The example: when a Science teacher showed a funny movie as a break from class, the boy asked, “What does this have to do with science?” This behavior was breaking unspoken rules of the classroom. The boy didn’t know how to join; he was asking a “literal thinking” question. The school needed to help, not misinterpret his challenges.

Some Aspies ask why they have to adapt to the neurotypical world. My view is they don’t always have to; they can make choices. They need to be clear about their goals to decide if they want to adapt. Fighting doesn’t change the fairness or logic of the neurotypical world.

I worked with a very bright Aspie college student who was gifted in music. He felt respect should reflect a meritocracy; you respect people whose ideas were worthwhile. He balked at showing respect for ideas of people (professors, colleagues) not as smart as he was, some of whom he even considered stupid.

The culture of the university demanded respect towards professors. He wanted to graduate, and he wanted to apply to graduate school. He needed to pass classes and get recommendations. He could choose to listen without agreeing internally, and then pretty much do what he wanted. He would fulfill social obligations and get his degree without relinquishing his beliefs.

Having the power to choose respects the dignity and integrity of the individual. Many argue that the school/university worlds should be the ones to change. At this point, not enough change has happened. There are places that are more or less accepting, and it is often helpful for parents or people with AS or NLD to choose environments that understand them.

However, clarity on goals is critical; sometimes, the AS or NLD person is in a less accepting environment out of necessity or interest. Educating others is critically important; however, a well-worn saying is about “winning the battle but losing the war.” For now, Aspies of all ages need to decide which battles matter most, as they navigate through an environment not engineered for them.

Fist bump photo available from Bigstock