Adapting to cultures: our communities' culture and the culture of autism spectrum disorder

Michelle Garcia Winner

Recently I was asked by a school educational specialist for advice on responding to a parent’s question about her bright high school student who has Asperger’s Syndrome. The question was something like this:

”Why should my son have to change his social behavior given that it represents his own social culture of ASD?”

The parent was, in part, also asking why the focus of treatment wasn’t on changing how others responded to her child’s individuality. This is a question that has popped up on occasion from adolescents and adults with higher functioning ASD and their parents. Many of you may have your own thoughts on how to address this question, but here’s my perspective.

Individuals with ASD and related social learning challenges who have solid social awareness are proud of who they are as thinkers, friends and/or creators of new discoveries, tools, art, literature, etc. While many are blessed with strong scientific thinking and other neurological strengths, the nature of their diagnosis also suggests an ongoing struggle with social learning as well as possibly other specific neurological challenges.

Individuals on a “neurotypical” developmental path are born with a neurological system that facilitates social learning. Their social brains are designed to seek opportunities to focus on social information and therefore learn the social norms of their community.

As individuals participate in their communities they form societies and there are some universal notions about how this is accomplished across the world:

I. In societies, social values are typically shared and can be thought of as cultural values.
II. Those with similar cultural values also share social expectations for how people within that specific culture behave – these are their cultural norms.
III. The social behaviors (e.g., social skills) connected to the norms help demonstrate the cultural values.

When people live in a specific society, it is expected they will abide by the values and use the related social skills which help represent their cultural norms. Those who choose to act or live outside the range of social values or people who do not fully understand these parameters risk exclusion from other participants in that culture. The very important exception to this is when a member born into a specific society lacks the cognitive capacity to understand how to interpret and respond to the society’s values. In these cases, several members of a society will naturally alter their expectations and adapt to the needs of that member.

What does all this mean? On one hand it means our students with ASD and related disabilities who have very poor self-awareness of the social skills/norms expected across environments are more likely to experience that others “understand” and frankly, give them a break. On the other hand, those with or without ASD who refuse to participate in learning the social values and cultural rules may find it difficult to be fully respected for the many strengths they have to offer their community. Instead, at times these people may face rejection.

The reasons for this possible rejection are extremely complicated. To share space effectively with people in our community we have to read each other’s intentions effectively much of the time. Onlookers or conversational partners may respond with anxiety when someone doesn’t follow the social norms of a specific situation. At times members of a community may respond with discomfort or even fear when a person is unpredictable in his/her social responses or emotional regulation. We are not talking about whether or not people’s responses to each other are totally fair. It’s more an issue of whether a person’s behaviors are expected/unexpected in the situation and the culture. This is just the way humans were designed – to feel comfortable or not depending on how others around them are acting. So, whether the culture is ASD or something else, it really doesn’t matter: culturally based Social Thinking and related social skills become an entry point for acceptance into communities.

This means our students with social learning challenges who have higher levels of social awareness - just like all people - have a responsibility to continue to work at learning how to relate to other members of the predominant society in which they are sharing space. If we go back to the original question, the high school student with AS, when around others members of his AS culture, can exhibit whatever social behaviors that are expected within that culture. However, when he steps outside that group, he is expected to think about and respond with expected behavior within the broader social culture (for instance, public high school) in which he is interacting. Think about people who travel internationally for work or leisure. (I do this often to give talks on Social Thinking to audiences around the world.) We recognize it is our job as the traveler to read the cultural norms of the society we are visiting so we can try to “blend in” as effectively as possible. Our attempts, even if not well executed, convey to members of that society that we respect the values of their culture.

We, parents and teachers alike, have a job to teach all our students how to continue to adapt effectively. One step in this direction is by teaching them to observe the social expectations of the situation they are experiencing to help increase awareness to what is going on around them. From there we work on helping students learn how to use specific social thinking and related social skills which help them to adapt to those expectations.

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