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Social cues are the pieces of information we subconsciously know without ever being explicitly taught them. These pieces of information are usually the unwritten rules or customs, the nuances of social communications or the assumptions and expectations we’re aware of within different contexts. Social cues and codes are learnt from an early age through observation of repeated behaviours within different environments, with particular people, within certain cultures or at specific locations. Understanding these cues allows us to easily navigate social interactions, daily life tasks, and communication within school, work or the community.

Helping children on the autism spectrum understand social cues is important from a young age, and crucial throughout their school years. For some children, reading subtle social cues can be challenging as it relies on an understanding of tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often interpret communication literally, so inferred behaviours can go unnoticed. This can lead to their actions being misinterpreted as rude, inappropriate or defiant. Understanding social cues can be made even more confusing as the rules often change with age, who you are with and where you are.

Consider this example:

A family might consider it the ‘norm’ to rest your feet on the coffee table while watching TV at home. Others in the family would know that you wouldn’t repeat that behaviour by putting your feet up on the desk at school if watching a video in class, however the different behaviours expected in this setting may be difficult for a child on the autism spectrum to recognise because the table is a constant in each scenario. Therefore, they do not recognise the need to adjust their behaviour, which can result in them acting in a way that is considered rude. It is important to recognise that children with on the spectrum do not intend to be defiant in their behaviour – they simply have not been explicitly taught the social cues to identify the behaviour expected of them in that context. They thrive with repetition and routine, so clear and consistent reinforcement of expected behaviours is crucial in helping them understand social cues.

Social cues in the school environment

Some more common social cues that teachers can be helping children on the autism spectrum understand in the school environment may include:

  • Talking in class. Most children learn quickly that you can talk in group time but not in silent reading. However, children with ASD may need some additional support to understand the differences in these activities. Every classroom is different, so take the time at the beginning of each school year to speak with your students about your expectations around classroom communication.
  • Dressing for different social settings. Different situations require specific uniforms or weather appropriate clothing. Children on the spectrum may need help to understand what is appropriate to wear in different seasons, locations or occasions. For example, if you are going on an excursion.
  • Conversation skills. Children on the spectrum may need help understanding conversational cues when speaking with others. They may need to be explicitly taught the expectations around things like how long to talk before it is the other person’s turn, what is appropriate eye contact, personal space, topics that are appropriate to talk about, and where it is inappropriate to have a conversation.
  • Words with multiple meanings, metaphors and idioms. Some words and phrases have different meanings in different contexts. For example, if someone were to say, “they’re sick”, it could mean that they are either ill or very cool. Context, body language and differences in tone of voice can help to identify the meaning of the word. However, children on the autism spectrum may have difficulty identifying the context and subtle language cues. The same can be true of figurative language such as metaphors and idioms where the meaning of the phrase is not literal. If you’re using metaphorical language in the classroom, be mindful of the need to more clearly explain the meaning.
  • Social norms. All environments are governed by varied social norms and children on the autism spectrum may need additional support in understanding what is expected for each. In school, there are different behaviour expectations depending on where in the school you are and who are with. For example, it might be ok to run around in the playground but not up and down the hallway, so it is important to communicate this clearly with your students.
  • Giving a compliment. Children with ASD will often need assistance in giving a compliment appropriately.  This may include information on what you can compliment (eg. 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.
  • Interrupting. Sometimes children on the autism spectrum have been taught not to interrupt adults when they are talking, which they may take so literally that they avoid contributing to classroom discussions or asking questions when they have not understood something. You can teach your students ways to politely interrupt, such as raising their hand or saying “excuse me”.
  • Saying what they think. People are not always supposed to say what they are thinking all the time. Children with ASD may need guidance in this area, otherwise they can unintentionally hurt people’s feelings.
  • Talking to people of authority. Children on the autism spectrum can sometimes get themselves into trouble with teachers, principals and other people of authority simply because they haven’t yet learnt that there are different expectations around communicating with them compared with their family and friends. Your students may need help understanding the different ways to speak with their friends, other students and teachers.
  • Swearing 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 it is not appropriate to swear in the company of teachers, parents and other people of authority and that some swear words are considered worse than others. Children on the autism spectrum may not easily identify these social cues and can become confused when they observe their friends swearing without getting into trouble but get into trouble themselves when swearing in the classroom. If you hear any of your students swearing, take the time to explain why it is not appropriate and help them identify the social cues around it.

Tips for Teaching Social Cues

Social cues exist in all parts of our lives and can vary greatly between environments, people and cultures. It is difficult to teach every one of these social cues, so the best and most effective tool is to teach students on the autism spectrum life-long skills and strategies to be able to uncover social rules for themselves. Some of these strategies include:

  1. Asking questions. If your student does not know what is expected of them, they need to know it is perfectly ok to ask questions to find out more information.
  2. Watching others. It is not always instinctive for those on the autism spectrum to look around at others to learn but you can guide them to do this if they are not sure how they are expected to behave. They can ask themselves, “What is everyone else doing now? Should I be doing that too?”
  3. Identifying a safe person. It can be useful for children on the autism spectrum to have a mature, dependable teacher, older buddy or peer that they can ask advice from when unsure about social expectations, rules or etiquette.
  4. Developing a problem-solving strategy – what can be done to avoid misinterpreting a social cue?
  • Check the calendar for any special events, dates or activities and teach the social expectations in the lead up to them
  • Utilise social narratives that describe cues and appropriate responses in key social situations
  • Focus on explicit areas of social communication including 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 social cues
  • Utilise role-playing to help children practice generalising their social skills in different contexts
  • Rather than disciplining a child for something that they “should” have known, take the opportunity to help teach them the social cue instead.

If you work with children on the autism spectrum, teaching them social cues is an important subject and life skill that will help them to build confidence, feel included and gain independence. They will face daunting and complex social situations throughout their life, so empowering them with the tools to understand and decode social cues for themselves is vital.

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