Autism and Socialization: When Socialization is a Conscious Process

Given our tremendous educational systems and attention to learning and growth, it is amazing to me that we still think of one of the most important learning processes as unconscious.

The Sociology Guide defines the process of socialization as “predominately an unconscious process by which a newborn learns the values, beliefs, rules and regulations of society, or internalizes the culture in which it is born.”

This definition always brings to mind a mama bird kicking her baby out of the nest, “Fly, Honey! Fly!”

Just Maybe It Should Be Taught…

Yet, a good look around should maybe impress upon us that this unconscious process of socialization requires a rethink as we now know that potentially at least 1 in 68 (I think that statistic is about to be demolished as more and more high-functioning autists are diagnosed) people learn it consciously.

I didn’t.

And I didn’t have help learning it consciously.

I remember growing up wondering how the heck everyone knew what was going on, what was going to happen next, and how others were going to behave.

We teach children to roll over, sit up, and stack blocks, but the complex process of socialization we believe they not only learn on their own, but they learn it without knowing they are learning it…unconsciously. HHHhhhmmm…

I believed this notion when I learned it in college in Sociology 101; I have since developed doubts.

For many, this process of socialization is nowhere near unconscious, and by the time these individuals are identified, they are years into trying to decipher that which should have been explicitly taught.

As a side note, people used to think homeschoolers weren’t placed in enough social situations to properly learn these rules, norms, and other cultural components; however, some of the most well-adjusted people I have met were homeschoolers.

So, what if we explicitly taught this information along with block stacking and simple manners? Are those who learn this unconsciously even able to put it into a meaningful, learnable format, or is it too subtle and complicated?

A Quick Business Analogy

I’m going to use a business analogy here because, well, I love a good business analogy.

In a well-run business, when onboarding new employees, the employer trains the new employees on all of their policies and procedures. They make everyone sign off, “I’ve been trained on this policy or this procedure,” so that they can prove or demonstrate that this person understands the policies or procedures or what was expected (the expectations) before they hold the person accountable.

In fact, it should be a red flag that there is a problem if the employer doesn’t engage in this practice. That to say, in some businesses, there may be way more to learn than in other businesses.

This process serves the dual purpose of holding the company and management accountable or responsible for communicating with and training employees.

A far cry from throwing a bird out of a nest, wouldn’t you say?

Socialization: A Process We Should Teach

In contrast, in our personal lives, we expect people to learn all about the world without even knowing it. Really?

What’s more is that when people struggle through this process, we deem them to be disordered. HHHhhmmmmm…

Remember – businesses intentionally teach their employees their policies, procedures, etc., yet when we bring kiddos into this world (remember the definition – newborns), we expect them to acquire the rules effortlessly.

With all kids, but especially with autistic kids, you can see how well this theory is working.

Again, I can tell you that the process of socialization was NOT unconscious for me. I engaged in the very conscious process of building a network of rules that I would try, with more or less success, to apply to the external world so that I could function in it.

(If someone has the employee handbook on how to be a person, please send me a copy! I would, even as an adult, love to read it!!!)

I don’t know how others experienced this process, but I worked at it. It seemed like the other kids just “knew” all of the things I was trying to figure out, but my point is that in a world where we don’t know what each other knows, the only safe rule is to teach.

So often, authority figures called me to task for events, behaviors, statements, etc., that I believed were completely within the correct boundaries given the context and people present.

That is the trial and error of autism – believing you know the rules and system well enough to play in the sandbox, only to realize you don’t.

Or, worse, knowing you don’t and having to play anyway with no one to help you.

I was wrong a lot. And people felt perfectly comfortable holding me accountable a topic I address further in my post, “Autism and Accountability: How to Know When To Hold an Autistic Child Accountable” and in my “Accountability Checklist” which is available in the Free Resource Library!

The Solution

As with a great many things in our society, the solution seems fairly simple to me, and I have already suggested it above.

We teach our kids. Everything.

Why aren’t we doing this already?

Because of widely accepted and deeply ingrained concepts like “socialization” that we don’t want to know or admit may need to be revisited.

But change we must, because if we don’t apply this standard to all children, by the time we identify the ones who struggle with this “unconscious process,” it is too late and damage has been done.

We tell these individuals they are wrong, we punish them, and we refuse to meet their needs and wants because we don’t understand them.

Then we wonder why they stop talking.

Though not the reason children become non-verbal, I personally stood quiet on many occasions for fear of a misstep.

Not really fear actually, more like terror.

The Power of Praise

Back to the business analogy, employers train everyone because that is how you ensure success.

But there is another missing piece.

Once kiddos get into this loop of negative feedback, it is super hard for them to get out. Almost like it is hard for folks convicted of crimes to remove themselves from the stigma.

In a world where we say people need ten positives for every negative, these kids get nowhere near that level of encouragement.

I’ve spent time with families in which the child that catches on quickly to these rules of engagement receives praise and adoration while a sibling who struggles and is clearly engaged in the conscious process of trial and error is corrected over and over again with no praise for progress.

Consider the analogy of teaching a child to make a bed. We don’t generally, I hope, expect perfection on the first try.

A tiny tot who tries to make their bed gets praise for trying, for near misses, and for the things they do get right. As time goes on, they have to do a little better and a little better to get that praise, but they get points for improvement.

In academic contexts, teachers reward students for improvement.

In the context of socialization, not so much.

Our pass/fail standard here is traumatic for many.

Think about examples that commonly go with autism. We view an autistic child’s meltdown as a fail. (You can read my thoughts on why this is a miss in my post, “Are the Meltdowns of Someone Who Has Autism Really Abnormal?”.) An uncontrollable panic attack – a fail. A demonstrated inability to understand or care about a social convention – a fail.

Playing the game, following the masses/systems/process – a win.

Now What?

If you want your kiddos to know something, teach it even when conventional wisdom does not require it. While they learn it, praise their efforts.

In the event that the rules are hard for you even today, take time to find a mentor or trusted friend and start working your way through them. It could be a formal situation, or it could be informal.

Just have someone you can check in with to encourage you and keep you going.

Know why?

Because we don’t all just “know” how the world works, and that is okay.

Because you are worth it. Just you. You’ve got this!

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  1. Ruth April 25, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    I had to learn it consciously too, with no help or acknowledgement from anyone. 40 years of painful trial and error. It was a full time job. Now at 53 with half my life gone i’ve finally got it down. But only 20 years left to start living my life. Sad. It should’t have to be this way.

    • Heather April 25, 2018 at 11:53 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing. If it is not taught, learning it on your own is soooo very difficult. I am so happy for you that you got it down, and hope that you enjoy every single minute of what is hope is more than 20 years because you totally deserve it!!

  2. Josy April 28, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    Do you have any suggestions of books on the matter for kids? I tried to find some and it’s mostly handbooks for parents or education professional. My son is five years old and has high functioning autism.

    Thank you!

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