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Including and Embedding Autistic Social Norms in Social Skills Practices

Group of four students reading and pointing to a page of a book

At a Glance

Exploring Preferences: Encourages both Autistic and Allistic students to identify and discuss their social comfort levels, aiming to understand the underlying reasons behind their preferences.

Negotiating Differences: Focuses on finding mutual accommodations that respect the social preferences of all students, rather than imposing a standard.

Handling Misunderstandings: Promotes open discussions about misunderstandings as a normal part of social interaction, helping to reduce the stigma around communication mishaps and promote the shared commitment to mutual understanding.

Welcome back to the Teaching Social Skills series, where we are focusing on ways to give students opportunities to practice social skills while centering autonomy and avoiding a “corrective” approach. 

In Part 1, we took a closer look at some common misconceptions around Autistic people and social skills, in Part 2 we talked about what constitutes a Neurodiversity-affirming approach, and in Part 3 we are going to take a closer look at ways we can embed and accept Autistic social norms into social skills practices.

If you read part 1 you might remember us mentioning that enforcing Allistic social norms can be harmful and counterproductive and wonder why we would then embed Autistic social norms into a curriculum. 

The goal of embedding Autistic social norms however is not to enforce them as the only way to interact, but to help people who are accustomed to being told that adhering to Allistic social norms is the only “correct” way to socialize (to the point that they might not even think of these thing as social norms!). 

In that spirit, while embedding autistic social norms into the curriculum might involve some discussion of concepts like eye contact or stimming or infodumping or relating through shared experiences, the goal is not so much to establish them as a new set of social norms but to normalize navigating our differences and not assuming the preferences of one group to be “normal” or the default. 

So let’s look at a few practical ways we might approach that as part of a social curriculum!

Be conscious of our expectations and why we have them.

One great initial approach to this topic is asking both Autistic and Allistic students to make a list of things that make them feel more comfortable and less comfortable in conversations. 

From pet peeves to things that might make them feel unsafe to things they just like to talk about - any preference when it comes to socializing is a valid thing to put on the list! The important follow up to this exercise is to examine each of these expectations and think about why we have them. 

Some might be obvious - certain expectations might be based on establishing personal boundaries or a sense of safety. Others might have some practical purpose while others boil down to a type of personal preference. 

Crucial in this exercise is emphasizing that it’s valid to have a preference for any reason, but also that our preferences can’t always be the default and that examining our reasoning can be a helpful tool in navigating differences in preference. Speaking of which…

Work on negotiating differences.

As mentioned in the last section, some social preferences are really more like boundaries, and if a person is not willing to respect our boundaries it may be untenable to have a social relationship with them. 

But it is also common to have different preferences, and in those cases, we want to normalize navigating the reality that each person’s preferences are valid and that it is better to try to incorporate both than treat one person’s preferences as the default. 

This is where examining the reasoning behind our preferences can be so valuable. Based on the reasoning behind our preferences, is there another way we can have our needs met that works for both parties. 

Can both sides work together for a solution in which both feel more comfortable, and it is not just one person sacrificing their comfort to “smooth things over?” 

It is especially crucial here to be cognizant of the reality that many Autistic people are accustomed to being asked to set aside their needs by default for the comfort of others, and to really encourage pursuing solutions that work for both people. 

If that means it takes more time than would be practical in a “real life” conversation that is OK! We are practicing for a reason! Since we are practicing, we also have to navigate another reality of the situation…

Normalize discussing misunderstandings.

Despite our best efforts at establishing great ground rules and finding workable social compromises and making our two-way street a proper one, there will still be mistakes and there will still be the potential for misunderstandings in any social situation. 

Rather than hope that enough prepwork will eliminate such situations, it is better to embrace that reality and treat it as a normal part of navigating our social differences. 

It can feel confrontational to openly talk about something that feels “off,” but if we can begin to establish the person raising a concern as just wanting to do a better job of understanding the situation and can reinforce for the person hearing such a question or concern that the person asking is just trying to understand better, it gets easier and easier over time to talk about those differences and it can feel less like a big deal. 

These situations don’t have to be high-stakes confrontations if we don’t treat them that way! And we can end up in a better place as a result.


With that we are wrapping up for this week, but we hope you will join us next week for one more segment on how we can prioritize organic social experiences over rigid training in the process of building up student social skills over time. 

Until then if you’d like to see us cover this topic more in depth or share your experience we would love to hear from you! Just drop us a line at and we will be back next week with Part 4!

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