Arguably, the biggest challenge for people living on the autism spectrum is figuring out how to act in social situations. As one person on the spectrum put it, it seems as if neurotypical people are all born with some sort of antenna that automatically picks up on social cues and knows how to appropriately interpret them, but people living on the autism spectrum are not born with that antenna. However, a speech-language pathologist named Michelle Garcia Winner came up with a curriculum, called Social Thinking, that uses clear, direct language and methods to teach people on the spectrum how to behave in social situations. The reason why I am able to exist in social spaces with relative ease is due in large part to the Social Thinking curriculum and how it presented such mind-boggling concepts in a concrete way that I was, and still am, able to understand.

One of the core concepts of Social Thinking is the concept of Expected and Unexpected Behaviors. The basic premise of Expected and Unexpected Behaviors is that in every situation, there is a set of appropriate (“Expected”) behaviors and a set of inappropriate (“Unexpected”) behaviors. For example, if you are seeing a play, the Expected Behavior would be to be silent during the play and clap when the rest of the audience is clapping. The Unexpected Behavior would be playing on your phone during the play and jeering while everyone else is clapping. Another crucial tenet of Social Thinking is being In The Group. Being In The Group means exhibiting behaviors that mirror the behaviors of the people around you. For example, in a classroom discussion, if you are In The Group, you are looking at and listening to the teacher (which is another Social Thinking concept called “Whole Body Listening”), not talking while the teacher is talking, raising your hand if you have a question, and taking notes. Up until now, the way to be In The Group has been to exhibit the Expected Behaviors in the situation. I’ll use the play example again: If you exhibit the Expected Behaviors (staying silent during the play and clapping when everyone else is clapping), you are In The Group.

In high school, however, exhibiting the Expected Behaviors is not always the way to be In The Group. In fact, it is often quite the opposite. I will give an example from an activity I did in class last week. My teacher, Ms. A, announced that she wanted us to “get out of our comfort zones” and that we would be doing so by doing an activity called Barnyard Symphony. Three people were chosen to be the Conductors, and the rest of us were split into four groups of animals: Pigs, Roosters, Cows, and Chickens.

“I will give you all three minutes to compose a symphony. It may be based on a song that already exists, but there are three rules,” Ms. A explained. “You may only use your animal noises, each animal group must have at least one featured section, and there must be a crescendo somewhere in the song. Any questions?”

“What is a crescendo?” One of my classmates asked. One of my special interests has always been music, so I eagerly raised my hand to answer this question (I forgot that raising one’s hand eagerly is one of the Unexpected Behaviors for high school students).

“It’s when the song gradually gets louder,” I explained.

My classmates and I spent the next three minutes arranging a rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Ms. A brought in the class next door to be our audience because she happened to be close friends with the teacher of that class. We performed the arrangement, and the other class clapped politely.

“Any feedback for these guys?” Ms. A said. One person raised their hand.

“Nessa seemed to be carrying the entire Pig section,” the person said.

“Nessa actually seemed to be carrying the whole song,” another person chimed in.

“Okay,” Ms. A said. “How about we try it again, but this time, Nessa will be in the Rooster section.” (The Roosters were the quietest section). We then performed it again, but this time, with me in the Rooster section. I received thunderous applause from the other class and the teachers when I crisply belted out, “COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO!”

“That was much, much better,” Ms. W, the teacher of the other class, said, looking straight at me and smiling.

That night, I recounted my proud moment to my parents, but my dad had a funny look on his face.

“Honey, in high school, that’s not what you want,” Dad said. “People are just going to think of you as a goody-goody.”

“They already think that anyway!” I groaned in exasperation.

“What I don’t understand is why Ms. A would plan that activity for the class,” Mom said. “She knows that most neurotypical teenagers would never want to do that, but that you have autism and that you love theater and would thus participate enthusiastically.”

“I didn’t want to disappoint her,” I said, twisting spaghetti around my fork.

“Nessa, you are the best participator this side of the Mississippi. All of your teachers know that you would do anything to please them,” Mom said.

“So, do you think she set me up to fail?” I asked.

“I mean, she probably knew better, but yes, she unintentionally set you up to fail, Nessa,” Mom said. “However, you had no way of knowing what the Expected Behavior of the situation was. You had never played that stupid Barnyard Symphony game, so you had no idea that the other kids would not have participated.” At this point, Mom’s face was the same color as the tomato sauce on my pasta (I call that look the I-swear-to-God-I-am-calling-the-school look).

That got me thinking about Expected and Unexpected Behaviors. The Expected Behavior for when the teacher is giving instructions is to do exactly as the teacher says without argument. However, by exhibiting the Expected Behavior, I was not In The Group. To quote an obscure 14-minute musical by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda, “What the heck I gotta do?”

“Nessa, honey, you take things…very, very literally, and it’s not your fault,” Mom said.

“But I thought that exhibiting the Expected Behavior means that you’re In The Group…?”

“Not in high school, honey,” Dad said.

“Then how do I be In The Group without exhibiting an Unexpected Behavior?” I asked.

“Well, that’s something you have to figure out,” Mom said.

That is the definitive worst answer regarding a social situation that you can give to a person on the spectrum, and Mom knew that. Now, I can’t rest until I figure this out.

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