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Teaching Expected and Unexpected Behaviours to Children with Autism

It is crucial to teach children that their actions, words, and behaviours can affect the feelings of others in the same way that their own feelings can be impacted by others.

Every social situation has unspoken “rules” or “expectations” that are understood and assumed by the majority of individuals. While these unspoken rules are not usually explicitly taught, they are generally assumed to be “common sense” and are easily recognizable to most typically developing individuals. On the other hand, children with ASD may have considerable difficulties recognizing these social expectations, resulting in uncomfortable interactions and situations.

Doing what is “expected” requires figuring out the specific hidden rules and aligning our behaviour (i.e. what we say and do) with the current expectations of a social situation. For instance, we understand that we do not interrupt others when they are talking. Instead, we wait for them to finish their part of the conversation before making our own input. However, we do need to acknowledge that doing what is expected of us, especially by society, is not always comfortable or fun. We may be required to follow instructions or do specific things that we may not enjoy, yet compliance might be expected in a particular social setting, such as in classrooms, toilets, malls, libraries, etc. Expected behaviours, such as putting away stationeries, cleaning spilled water on the floor, not running in the hallways, or being quiet in the library, may not be desirable, yet these behaviours are all expected by society to be performed in order to move forward with the scheduled plan for the day or to eventually get to the fun activities. There are instances where compliance to these unspoken rules may feel frustrating, but completing a particular task and receiving praise from others generally lead to a feeling of satisfaction on the part of the individual.

On the other hand, unexpected behaviours are behaviours that are not expected by society in a given situation. For example, crawling under the desk in class when the teacher is teaching and making a fuss when you don’t get what you want for lunch are generally considered to be unexpected behaviours. Unexpected behaviours make others around you feel unsure and uncomfortable. However, it is normal for us to make mistakes as human beings. The important thing is to make the effort to try to fix or change the unexpected behaviour.

At the same time, a particular behaviour, such as talking loudly, may be deemed unexpected in a library setting, yet expected in a party setting. In these instances, how can one teach and recognize the difference between expected and unexpected behaviours? There are many short videos on YouTube like Wondergrove, Peppa Pig, or even Sesame Street that are effective in teaching expected and unexpected behaviours. Likewise, many story books are useful in educating children on these issues. They are filled with opportunities to ask children about the character’s behaviours and whether those are expected or unexpected in the given social setting. Teachers or parents of children can take the time to discuss with their child about behaviours by pausing at particular moments in the video that exhibit either one of the behaviours.

It is crucial to teach children that their actions, words, and behaviours can affect the feelings of others in the same way that their own feelings can be impacted by others. However, teaching specific rules of expected and unexpected behaviours should not result in a set of memorized social skills. Rather, it should result in helping children with ASD to observe others more carefully, develop more social awareness, and practice adapting over time to the social requirements of a given situation and of the specific people present. After understanding how their behaviours impact how others perceive them, children with ASD may be more motivated to change their behaviours or act more appropriately given the social situation.

Written by Hannah.

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