Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Explaining the “Hidden Curriculum” to Children on the Autism Spectrum

Ronnie was a well-liked seventh-grader, despite his quirkiness. His classmates accepted him and were understanding of his Asperger’s diagnosis. One day Ronnie was talking with his classmates in the restroom before class when his friend Seth began cussing in anger about his C in Math. Ronnie picked up on the cussing and associated it with being mad. The bell rang and Ronnie went on to his next class. As he sat down, he realized that he left his social studies book in his locker. His teacher, Miss Sanders, would not let him go back to his locker, and immediately Ronnie got angry and began to swear. Miss Sanders sent Ronnie to the dean’s office, leaving Ronnie perplexed as to what he did wrong. He thought it was acceptable to cuss when he was angry about something. He didn’t understand the “hidden curriculum” – in this case, that what is acceptable around fellow classmates may not be acceptable around teachers.

Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have difficulty understanding the “hidden curriculum” in school and community environments. The hidden curriculum refers to the set of routines, social rules, tasks, or actions that “typical” children readily understand and use. Often considered to be a matter of common sense, the hidden curriculum is almost never directly taught, nonetheless it is a significant aspect of everyday life.

The hidden curriculum covers a multitude of areas. Therefore, it is impossible to create a comprehensive list that applies to all children on the autism spectrum in all situations. The following is a brief list of hidden curriculum examples:
  • Acceptable slang that may be used with your friends may not be acceptable when interacting with grown-ups.
  • Do not argue with a policeman – even if you are right.
  • Do not ask friends to do things that will get them in trouble.
  • Do not ask to be invited to someone's party.
  • Do not correct someone's grammar when he or she is angry.
  • Do not draw violent scenes.
  • Do not pick flowers from someone's garden without permission, even you want to give them to someone.
  • Do not sit in a chair that someone else is sitting in.
  • Do not tell someone that his or her house is much dirtier than it should be.
  • Do not tell someone that he or she has bad breath.
  • Do not touch someone's hair even if you think it is pretty.
  • Do not try to do what actors do on television or the movies. These shows are not the same as real life.
  • It is absolutely impolite to interrupt someone when he or she is talking, unless it is an emergency.
  • Never break laws – no matter what your reason.
  • Not all people you are unfamiliar with are strangers you can’t trust. You may not know your bus driver or your police officer, but these are people who help you.
  • People are not always supposed to say what they are thinking.
  • People do not always want to know the honest truth when they ask you a question. For example, your best friend does not want to hear that she looks fat in a new dress she just bought for the high school dance.
  • Speak to teachers in a pleasant tone of voice because they will respond to you in a more positive manner. 
  • Teachers do not all have the same rules. One teacher may allow gum in the classroom, while the other may issue consequences for chewing gum.
  • Treat all authority figures with respect.
  • What may be acceptable at your house may not be acceptable at a friend’s house. For example, although it is acceptable to put your feet up on the table at your home, your friend’s mom may be upset if you do that in their home.
  • When a teacher gives you a warning, it means that she wants the behavior to stop and that most likely there will be a consequence if the behavior occurs again.
  • When a teacher tells another student to stop talking, it is not an appropriate time for you to start talking to your neighbor.
  • When the teacher is scolding another student, it is not the best time to ask the teacher a question.

Other examples of hidden curriculum would include being neat and punctual, completing work, conducting oneself courteously, cooperating, exercising restraint, keeping busy, showing allegiance to both teachers and classmates, and trying to do one’s best.

Since the hidden curriculum is not understood instinctively in the mind of a child with AS or HFA, parents and teachers must provide direct instruction to facilitate skill acquisition. For example, the parent can write one hidden curriculum item on a whiteboard each morning and introduce this item to her child as a first activity. Once the child understands the hidden curriculum item, he can be asked to indicate how it will impact him at home and/or school.

Here’s an example of this method:

  1. Write on the whiteboard, “You should look your teacher in the eyes when she is talking to you.”
  2. Why? Because it demonstrates respect, and it shows the teacher that you are listening.
  3. How will this impact you? You may feel uncomfortable at first since looking people in the eyes is sometimes difficult for you.
  4. Next, parent and child roleplay this scenario (i.e., the parent speaks directly to the child while the child maintains eye contact and nods his head to acknowledge that he understands what is being said).

In summary, the “hidden curriculum” is a set of important social skills that everyone knows, but no one is taught. This includes assumed rules, parent expectations, teacher expectations, idioms and metaphors, etc. Especially with younger kids, the hidden curriculum is often discussed in terms of social cues and particular mannerisms (e.g., understanding classroom order, knowing to wait their turn, understanding the difference between playground-appropriate language and classroom-appropriate language, etc.).

In this context, the hidden curriculum is made up of things that children just pick up on naturally. However, understanding the hidden curriculum is very difficult for children with a deficit in social skills, especially those on the autism spectrum. Thus, these skills must be taught.

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