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Using a Neurodiversity-Affirming Approach for Teaching Social Skills

Teacher talking with a group of students sitting together.

At a Glance

Acknowledgment that conventional social norms are not always fair or applicable to Autistic individuals and discuss the importance of acknowledging this in social skills education.

Suggestions on ways to encourage Autistic students to share their preferred ways of socializing and incorporate these preferences into classroom discussions and activities.

Teach the concept of socializing as a genuine two-way street, promoting Allistic students to accommodate Autistic social communication styles.

Welcome back to the Teaching Social Skills Series, where in part 1 we talked about some common misconceptions around Autistic people and social skills, and in part 2 we are going to hone in on how to build a neurodiversity-affirming approach to teaching social skills. 

As a teacher it may feel like those two goals are at odds - after all many of the types of skills or norms we would say are wrong to force on an Autistic student are also the types of skills that are expected in certain social contexts, and the people in those contexts might have no knowledge of or frame of reference for the reality of Allistic social norms and the unfair way Autistic people are treated. 

How can we hold the two truths that social burdens placed on Autistic people are often unrealistic and unfair AND that Autistic people will nonetheless likely find themselves in situations where that is the case and face negative consequences for refusing to abide by those norms? A great place to start is by acknowledging both, and in this post we will get into a little more detail about what that might mean.

In the meantime if you have some experiences around teaching or learning about social norms that you’d like to share then we’d love to hear from you! Just drop us a line at and we will dive right in!

Acknowledge allistic social norms - and that they’re not always fair or reasonable!

As we alluded to in the introduction, Allistic social norms can be such a default mode of operation for so many people that they’re not even consistently recognized as social norms, but rather the “correct” way to act. 

For people who feel a disconnect to those norms or struggle to adhere to them, it can understandably be harmful to hear that the way you exist and your most comfortable modes of interaction are fundamentally incorrect and can lead to many Autistic people choosing to mask at the expense of their own mental health. 

That is why it is so monumentally important to point out Allistic social norms for what they are: one mode of socializing that is perfectly valid but also unfairly held up as the best or only way to interact by too many people. 

Ultimately Autistic students will be faced with the choice of whether they wish to mask by trying to adhere to those norms time and time again across a huge variety of situations, and ultimately it is their choice whether or not they want to do that. 

The least we can do as educators is acknowledge the unfair situation they have been put into and reinforce that they are not in the wrong for feeling more comfortable doing things a different way.

Offer Autistic students a chance to share the ways they like to socialize.

If you spend enough time following autistic influencers on social media you may notice some posts related to Autistic modes of communication, whether it’s avoiding certain Allistic social norms like eye contact and small talk or talking about Autistic modes of communication like infodumping. 

Research on the topic has also come around to broadly considering differences in communication styles between Autistic and Allistic people. But it also remains true that every Autistic person is different, and the goal of embedding Autistic social norms into a curriculum is not to enforce one particular mode of interaction. 

In that sense, while it might help to touch upon some of those Autistic social norms, it is especially important to center conversations about the way we as individuals like to interact, which will jumpstart the crucial next part of the conversation:

Treat socializing as a real two-way street.

One frustrating experience that many Autistic people may have had growing up is being told they must conform to Allistic social norms because socializing is a “two-way street.” 

It is especially frustrating to hear this kind of justification when many Autistic people by default already try to meet Allistic people more than halfway, and are subsequently punished for not doing everything in a default way that makes Allistic people feel most comfortable without requiring any critical engagement from them. 

It is worth remembering that some Autistic students may have already experienced this dynamic when talking about the importance of a real two way street, in which Allistic people are expected to treat their socializing preferences as preferences rather than the social default, and to genuinely navigate mutual differences in a way that everyone can feel comfortable with. 

If you make sure to enforce this saying in the context of asking Allistic students to do more work to understand their Autistic peers, it can be a cathartic experience for Autistic students who may feel like they are the ones always expected to change for the comfort of others.

Acknowledge the reality of masking - and that it’s OK to choose not to mask.

Once we have established the reality that Allsitic social norms exist and that it’s not fair for Allistic people to expect Autistic people to conform to those norms all the time it is that much easier to have a difficult conversation about the question of whether to mask. 

However much we might talk about the way things should be in the classroom, sometimes out in the world social situations will still be dominated by Allistic expectations and Autistic people will often have to choose whether to get by in those situations with masking or to risk social consequences by being themselves. 

In some situations masking might not be that difficult for some people, but in others it can be incredibly damaging, and some Autistic people even report losing their sense of self if they mask too much. Other Autistic people simply cannot mask in certain situations even if they wanted to. Ultimately it is up to each individual Autistic person how comfortable they are with navigating those situations and whether the risks of masking and practicing masking are worth it to them. 

But that decision can’t be fairly made if Autistic people are led to believe by their teachers and peers that they fundamentally do things the “wrong” way and need to correct themselves, rather than make a strategic decision about how to navigate an unfair world. 

That is why it is so crucial to lay the groundwork for establishing that we have different social preferences and that it is OK to try to navigate those differences in our way.


We hope that part 2 has inspired some thinking on how to include discussions of Autistic social norms in a way that affirms the value of Autistic and other Neurodivergent students’ ways of socializing. 

Next week we will talk a little more about embedding Autistic social norms into the curriculum, not so much as a way of enforcing them but rather as a way of acknowledging that social differences exist and there is no one correct way to navigate them. We hope to see you then!

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Previous article Including and Embedding Autistic Social Norms in Social Skills Practices
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