How to Teach the Hidden Curriculum for Children with ASD

By Renee Irving-Lee, Children’s Book Author © 2018 Learning Links

The best way to describe the term ‘hidden curriculum’ is the information in life that everybody automatically knows without ever being explicitly taught. These pieces of information are usually the unwritten rules or customs, the nuances of social communications or the assumptions and expectations within different contexts.  Most people can pick up on the social cues and read between the lines to get an understanding of what is expected within different environments, with particular people, within certain cultures or at specific locations.  Understanding the hidden curriculum gives us the ability to successfully navigate social interactions, daily life tasks, and communications within school, work or the community.

Children who have ASD, however have difficulty reading social cues and body language.  They often interpret things literally, have trouble understanding other peoples’ perspectives, and can express themselves in an inappropriate way.  These social difficulties affect their interactions with others and through no fault of their own can lead to a misinterpretation of their actions as rude, inappropriate or defiant.  This then leaves them feeling nervous and anxious about future social events.  What makes the hidden curriculum even more difficult for a child with ASD is that the rules often change with age, gender, who you are with, how many people you are with and your location.

Consider this example:

When watching TV, everyone in the family stretches out their legs and puts their feet up onto the coffee table for extra comfort.  This is considered the family ‘norm’ for watching TV.  One day Grandma comes to visit, and everyone is chatting and sitting around the loungeroom with their cups of tea and snacks on the coffee table.  No-one in the family has ever been explicitly taught that you don’t ever put your feet up on the coffee table when there are drinks and snacks on it, and you especially don’t ever do it when Grandma is over.  Everybody in the family automatically assumes that this would not be an acceptable time; everybody except the child with ASD.  The child with ASD puts their feet up on the coffee table because that is what they have done previously.  They can’t understand why everyone is so mad at them and why Grandma is completely mortified that they dare be so rude. 

The child with ASD does not do these things because they are rude or defiant, or because they don’t care – they do it simply because no-one has specifically taught them not to.  Nobody has ever EXPLICITLY taught them that it is ok to put your feet up on the coffee table when watching TV, but it’s not ok when there is food or drink on the coffee table and it is NEVER ok when Grandma is visiting.  To add even further confusion to this situation, no-one has also ever explicitly taught them that while it is ok to put your feet up on the coffee table at their house, it might not be ok at their friend’s house and it’s definitely not ok at Grandma’s house.  Furthermore, no-one has ever taught them that coffee tables might sometimes be ok to put your feet up on, but dinner tables and school desks are never ok to put your feet up on.  Can you see how confusing this may be to a child with ASD?

The hidden curriculum is everywhere, but here are some of the more common areas that children with ASD may need assistance with:

  • How to talk in class. This topic tends to be a very tricky one for children with ASD as there are so many different expectations from different teachers and different subject areas.  Many neurotypical developing children learn quickly that you can whisper quietly in one teachers’ class and not at all in another class or that you can talk in group time but not silent reading.
  • How to dress appropriately. Different situations require different attire, uniforms or weather appropriate clothing and children with ASD often need help with understanding what is appropriate to wear in different seasons, locations or occasions.  For example, it is ok to wear just your boardshorts and thongs to the beach, but it is not ok to wear them to a restaurant.
  • How to talk to people of authority. Children with ASD often get themselves into trouble with teachers, principals or people of authority simply because they haven’t learnt the hidden curriculum yet for speaking with them.  They need help understanding the difference between talking to their friends, family members, strangers on the street and authority figures.
  • Swearing and the lack of understanding of the hidden curriculum associated with it, often gets children with ASD into a lot of trouble. Right or wrong, as children get older they start to pick up some swear words and add them into their vocabulary.  Most children learn quickly that you don’t swear in the company of teachers and parents or at the school principal and that some swear words are much worse than others.  The child with ASD, however can get confused easily if they hear a friend swear in the playground and not get into any trouble, but then they themselves get sent straight to the principal’s office when they swear in the classroom.  The child with ASD hasn’t learnt yet that there is a high chance of not getting into trouble if you swear at the very far end of the playground away from any adults, but you do get into a lot of trouble when you swear loudly in class in front of the teacher.
  • Conversation skills. Children with ASD often need to learn the hidden curriculum of how to have an appropriate conversation with someone.  They may need explicit lessons on how long to talk before it’s the other persons turn, appropriate eye contact, who you should have a conversation with and when, places that are inappropriate to have conversations (e.g. the cinema or public toilet), topics that are appropriate and inappropriate to talk about etc.
  • Words with multiple meanings. Some words and phrases have different meanings in different contexts. For example: excuse me (to pass gas, or to ask someone to move), sick (someone is ill, or is totally cool), duck (an animal or to get out of the way) ring (to call someone or a piece of jewellery).  There are many phrases like this in the English language and can cause a child with ASD great distress unless they have been taught the hidden curriculum of how they can be used in different circumstances and when to tell the difference.
  • Metaphors and idioms are also areas where children with ASD find challenging to understand the hidden curriculum in using them.
  • Social norms that govern common group functions and different locations. All social functions vary greatly and children with ASD need help to unpack the hidden curriculum at each of these social functions.  For example, it is ok to run around outside and be loud at a 5-year old’s birthday party, but it’s not ok to do that at Grandma’s 80th birthday dinner at the retirement home.
  • How to give a compliment. Children with ASD will often need assistance in giving a compliment appropriately.  This may include information on what you can compliment (e.g. hair, clothes, a nice gesture, but not certain body parts), how long you can talk to the person without making them feel uncomfortable and when is the best time to give the compliment.
  • When it is acceptable to interrupt people and when it is not. Sometimes children with ASD have been taught not to interrupt adults when they are talking, and they take this rule so literally that something may be on fire and they would wait until it has burnt to a crisp rather than break the rule of interrupting.
  • Saying what they think. People are not always supposed to say what they are thinking all the time and children with ASD often need guidance in this area or otherwise they can unintentionally hurt people’s feelings.

Tips for Teaching the Hidden Curriculum

  • The best and most effective tip for teaching the hidden curriculum is to teach the child life-long skills and strategies to be able to uncover the hidden curriculum themselves. Some of these strategies include:
  1. Ask questions. If the child with ASD doesn’t know what is expected of them, they need to know it is perfectly ok to ask questions to find out more information.
  2. Watch others. It is not instinctive for those on the spectrum to look around at others to learn, so they can be taught to do this if they are not sure.  What is everyone else doing at the moment? Should I be doing that too?
  3. Develop a safe person. The child with ASD really needs a mature, dependable teacher/peer that they can ask advice from when unsure about social expectations, rules or etiquette.
  4. Problem solving strategy – what can they do if a hidden curriculum interpretation error has taken place?
  • Check the calendar for any special events, dates or activities that may require pre-empting teaching the hidden curriculum beforehand.
  • Utilise social narratives that describe cues and appropriate responses in key social situations
  • Some explicit areas to teach include body language, age appropriate behaviours, gender related differences, how things change depending on who you are with, cultures, and what is expected and unexpected in different situations.
  • Use Apps to help with social understanding and learning the hidden curriculum.
  • Utilise roleplaying to help children with ASD practice generalising their social skills in different contexts
  • If you are about to discipline a child for something that they “should” have known, perhaps you should be asking whether this is an opportunity to help teach them the hidden curriculum instead?

If you work with children with ASD, teaching the hidden curriculum is most likely the most important subject and life skill that you will ever teach. Those with ASD are faced with daunting and complex social situations every day that require them to decode a range of social cues, despite their limitations in this area. Understanding the hidden curriculum will always be a life-long challenge for those on the spectrum, so as educators it is vital we give it the importance it deserves within our daily planning.

Where to go for more help:

Autism Association of Western Australia: App Reviews

Yes She Can: The Hidden Curriculum by Brenda Smith Myles, Ph.D.

Autism Parenting Magazine: Best Autism Apps