Autism and Socialization: When Socialization is a Conscious Process

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.”

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

Just Maybe It Should Be Taught…

This definition always brings to mind a mama bird kicking her baby out of the nest, “Fly, Honey! Fly!” The problem is that not all our “little birds” know how to fly. Some of they are splatting.

I tried to learn to fly. I splatted.

Over and over.

I remember growing up wondering how the heck everyone knew what was going on. What was going to happen next? How did others know how to behave?

How do these wings work???

We teach children to roll over, sit up, and stack blocks. Then we leave them to their own devices to learn the complex process of socialization.

“Socialization” requires a rethink. We know that for many socialization happens consciously. We also now know that that is true for at least 1 in 68 people. By the time we know which individuals need help, they are years into trying to learn what they needed to be taught.

So, what if we taught this information along with block stacking and rolling over?

“It Can’t Be Taught”

I’ve heard that one, and I don’t believe it.

People thought homeschoolers weren’t in enough social situations to experience this process. These beliefs turned out to be untrue. Homeschooled kids often outperform their public school peers.

Having homeschooled, I watched family after family teach their kids these skills. Some of the most well-adjusted people I have met were homeschoolers.

My conclusion?

We can and should teach socialization.

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, employers train new employees on their policies and procedures. They make everyone sign off on their training. The employers then knows that each person understands the policies or procedures. This process allows them to then hold employees accountable.

In fact, it should be a red flag if the employer doesn’t engage in this practice.

This process also serves to hold the company accountable for communicating with employees.

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

What happens when employees are not taught the procedures? They don’t know them, or at the very least there is a delay in their learning them, and so problems arise.

Socialization: A Process We Should Teach

So good businesses intentionally teach their employees their policies and procedures. Yet when we bring kiddos into this world (“newborns”), we expect them to learn rules unconsciously. What’s more is that when people struggle through this process, we deem them to be disordered. We even blame them.


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. Then 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.

If I made a mistake, I received punishments – never knowing exactly what I’d done wrong.

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

Or, worse, you know you don’t know the rules and you have to play anyway.

I was apparently wrong a lot. People held me accountable without ever teaching me the right way. Check out 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!

We have to teach it. When we don’t people fail, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. If we are being honest, we failed them, not the other way around.

The Solution

The solution seems simple to me, and I have already suggested it above.

We teach our kids. Everything.

Again, why aren’t we doing this already?

Because of widely accepted and deeply ingrained concepts like “socialization.”

But change we must. By the time we identify the ones who struggle with this “unconscious process,” it is too late. Damage has been done.

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

Then we wonder why they stop talking.

No, I don’t think this is the reason children become non-verbal. I can tell you though, I personally stood quiet on many occasions for fear of a misstep.

Not fear actually, more like terror.

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

The Power of Praise

But there’s 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.

We say people need 3-6 positives comments per negative comment. These kids get nowhere near that level of encouragement.

In families, a child that catches on to these social rules receives praise and adoration. A sibling engaged in trial and error process that comes with autism is corrected. Over and over again.

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 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 – fail.
  • A demonstrated inability to understand or care about a social convention – fail.

Contrary to what lots of parents believe, many, many kids with autism want to please. Praise shows them they are succeeding.

Praise not for perfection, praise for progress.

Now What?

If you want your kiddos to know something, teach it. While they learn it, praise their efforts.

In the event that the “rules” are hard for you even as an adult, find a mentor and start working your way through them.

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’s okay.

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

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Autism and Accountability


Autism and Socialization

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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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