The hidden curriculum is assumed knowledge – the expectations, rules or guidelines that are not directly taught because they are universally known (Garnet, 1984; Hemmings, 2000; Jackson, 1968; Kanpol, 1989; Myles, Trautman, & Schelvan, 2004). It also addresses the incongruities of how skills are executed differently across communicative partners and environments, making it an essential set of skills for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) who often do not detect the subtleties of situations and are often routine bound, literal, and rule enforcers.
The absence of instruction of the hidden curriculum, however, does not belie its importance. The hidden curriculum is significant and can impact social interactions, school performance, and safety. Despite its considerable value, little information on hidden curriculum has been published because it has been largely considered “common sense” and is often only recognized after a hidden curriculum error has occurred. For example, there is a hidden curriculum for nose picking. It is not “pick your nose.” Rather it is “pick your nose in the bathroom and use a tissue.” Violation of this hidden curriculum item can result in a child being isolated from peers.
Impact of the Hidden Curriculum
While some hidden curriculum items may seem humorous, the impact of not knowing or following the hidden curriculum can be serious. A demonstration of not understanding the hidden curriculum can cause an individual to be bullied, ignored, made fun of, or to be misunderstood. Hidden curriculum challenges can be even more serious impacting health and well-being. Its impact can be felt in the school, home, community, in emergency situations, on the job, or in the judicial system.
School – Schools have their own multi-faceted hidden curriculum. How to dress, what type of backpack to carry, how to greet peers, what games are acceptable to play, etc… Teachers have their own hidden curriculum. Even though a classroom rule telling students not to talk is posted, that rule is not always in effect. Johnny, a third-grade student with ASD, did not understand this and refused to talk during cooperative group time because he did not want to break the no-talking rule. Johnny’s teacher assumed that all students inherently knew that talking during when in cooperative groups was permissible.
Home – The hidden curriculum at home often is related to values and rules. At other times, the hidden curriculum is related to good etiquette and tradition. Parents and caretakers often explicitly teach some hidden curriculum items as they become aware that their children have deficits in these areas. However, these deficits sometimes become apparent during times of stress in the home and, as a result, children do not receive patient instruction, but instead are given a rule without explanation. Millie’s family had a chair designated as “dad’s chair” in the living room. When a family guest sat in “dad’s chair” Millie became extremely anxious and begin to pace. Her behavior escalated as she loudly challenged the visitor, “Get out of that chair now! It is not yours.” Millie did not understand the hidden curriculum rule that visitors were permitted to sit in “dad’s chair.”
Community – While home-related hidden curriculum items are often easily remediated by caretakers with little damage to self or others, errors made in the community may have negative ramifications. Peter Gerhardt talks about the hidden curriculum of urinals. For example, if there is only one man at a urinal, a newcomer should not go to the urinal next to that man. Rather, the newcomer should be at urinal that is at least two stalls away. Failure to understand this rule and similar others can result in others seeing the individual as gullible and naïve and could perhaps lead to that person being taken advantage of.
Emergency Situations – As much as possible, it is necessary to teach learners on the spectrum how to address urgent and unexpected events. These can range from downed power lines to tornados to coming into contact with poisonous substances. Spencer’s mother was trying to prepare her son for weather alerts before he went to college. Because their state often had hurricanes, she wanted to make certain that Spencer knew what to do in case this disaster occurred. “What would you do if there was a hurricane near you? You know that many buildings have glass doors in them. Hurricanes can cause devastating damage, such as blowing out windows and patio doors,” she asked. Nonplussed, Spencer replied, “Why, I’d put on my shoes.” His mother was dumbfounded. Spencer, who had an intelligent quotient in the above average range and had Asperger Syndrome, had seen countless hurricanes in his life and she assumed that Spencer knew what to do. Why would Spencer put on shoes? Because he wanted to ensure that he did not step on broken glass when barefoot.
Workplace – Mastering the hidden curriculum in the workplace can present a major obstacle. Many assumptions are made regarding understanding the hidden curriculum in a place of employment because adults are assumed to be knowledgeable about workplace rules and, if they are not immediately competent on these issues, it is expected that they will be mastered in a short period of time. For example, it is wise to be nice to your coworkers, especially your boss, whether you like them or not. And the term “lunch hour” may not refer to a clock hour.
Legal System – The hidden curriculum surrounding law enforcement and professionals and the legal system is quite complex and a misunderstanding of this system can have severe ramifications for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Recently, an evening news show featured a young man who had been arrested. The young man, who was obviously distressed, was sitting in a room with three-way mirrors with a detective. The detective was questioning the young man – rapidly firing questions at him. At one point, the officer told the man that if he would confess, he could go home. At that point, the young man confessed to the crime, which it turned out he did not commit, so that he could go home as promised. Of course, that scenario did not occur and the young man was incarcerated (Myles et al., 2004).
Teaching the Hidden Curriculum
Social skills are not skills generally acquired naturally by individuals with ASD. It is important that parents and professionals working with these individuals teach them the skills necessary to navigate the hidden curriculum. A safety net, the Power Card strategy (Gagnon, 2001), the Incredible 5-Point Scale (Buron & Curtis, 2003), and the one-a-day method are four instructional strategies that have been used to teach hidden curriculum skills to individuals with ASD. The following paragraphs outline these strategies.
Safety Net – One of the most basic instructional interventions for teaching the hidden curriculum to individuals with ASD is to assist them in designating a person with whom they have rapport or safety net who will provide accurate information, answer their questions, and model appropriate behaviors related to the hidden curriculum. The safety net could be different for each individual. It could be a family member, teacher or other school professional, caregiver, friend, or peer in the work force. Regardless of who becomes a safety net, that person should have the following characteristics:
- They have an understanding of the individual – their characteristics, their perspectives, their needs
- They are able to listen to the individual without judging or interrupting and then know when to offer advice
- They are able to use problem solving techniques
- They understand things that might trigger tantrums or rage for that particular individual.
- They are able to set boundaries when necessary.
The Power Card Strategy – The Power Card Strategy, developed by Gagnon (2001), uses a non-threatening, motivating hero from a child’s special interest to provide a visual sequence that models appropriate steps for completing a social skill such as those found in the hidden curriculum. The Power Card strategy is composed in two phases. In the first phase, the parent or professional identifies a hidden curriculum skill that is challenging for a child or youth with ASD. They then develop a scenario in which the individual’s hero (i.e., Spiderman) engages in the appropriate steps to complete that skill. After the scenario is introduced to the child or youth, he is given a power card, the size of a business card, with a visual and the steps for completing that difficult skill.
The Incredible 5-Point Scale – The Incredible Five Point Scale was created to assist parents and professionals in making behaviors more concrete for individuals with ASD by breaking them down into sequential, understandable parts (Buron & Curtis, 2003). This scale allows individuals to recognize stages in their responses to situations with the ultimate goal of learning to increase self-regulation, thus resulting in more appropriate responses to situations.
One-a-Day Method – This strategy involves introducing one hidden curriculum item each day to the individual with ASD. In the general education classroom, the teacher can begin the day by writing a hidden curriculum item on the whiteboard and briefly discuss it with the entire class. All learners can benefit from the hidden curriculum; however, it is essential for individuals on the spectrum. At home, a caregiver can discuss one item at the breakfast table, during bedtime routine, or in the car running a regularly scheduled errand.
The hidden curriculum, an area often neglected in the instruction of children and youth with ASD, is essential to life success. A myriad of easy-to-use strategies, including using a safety net, Power Card strategy, the Incredible 5-Point Scale, and the one-a-day method can help make learning elusive hidden curriculum items motivating for individuals on the spectrum.
Brenda Smith Myles, PhD is a consultant with the Ziggurat Group. Dr. Myles is the recipient of the 2004 Autism Society of America’s Outstanding Professional Award and the 2006 Princeton Fellowship Award. She has written numerous articles and books on Asperger Syndrome and autism including Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns (with Southwick) and Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Practical Solutions for School Success (with Adreon). The latter is the winner of the Autism Society of America’s Outstanding Literary Work. Brenda has made over 500 presentations all over the world, written more than 150 articles and books on autism and Asperger Syndrome, and served as the co-chair of the National ASD Teacher Standards Committee. She is also on the executive boards of several organizations, including the Organization for Autism Research and Maap Services Inc. In addition, she was recently acknowledged as the second most productive applied researcher in ASD in the world in a recent study conducted by the University of Texas. You may contact Dr. Myles by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buron, K.D., & Curtis, M. (2003). The Incredible 5-Point Scale: Assisting students with autism spectrum disorders in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Gagnon, E. (2001). The Power Card Strategy: Using special interests to motivate children and youth with Asperger Syndrome. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Garnett, K. (1984). Some of the problems children encounter in learning a school’s hidden curriculum. Journal of Reading, Writing and Learning Disabilities International, 1(1), 5-10.
Hemmings, A. (2000). The hidden curriculum corridor. High School Journal, 83(2), 1-10.
Jackson, P. (1968). Life in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
Kanpol, B. (1989). Do we dare teach some truths? An argument for teaching more ‘hidden curriculum’. College Student Journal, 23, 214-217.
Myles, B. S., Trautman, M. L., & Schelvan, R. L. (2004). The hidden curriculum: Practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.