Autism and Social Conventions

Autism and Social Convention:

Bear with me here as this might prove to be a long post but I hope in the end it is worth it to you as well as to me. I need some input here and am hopeful YOU, yes YOU can provide it! Okay, so for those who don’t know, I have classical autism with hyperlexia. My 2 boys also have autism in varying forms. Autism, if you don’t know, is a neurological brain difference. The only difference between one form and another is the types of manifestations of that brain difference. Even if the same form is found in two individuals, you’ll still see the brain difference manifest in different ways because it also impacts personality—which differs from one person to the next.

Hyperlexia is defined as a “precocious ability to read.” Both I and my youngest son have this as well as our autism. Like autism, it doesn’t go away as you grow up—it may change in manifestations though, like autism. For me, hyperlexia now means I can read and understand texts in areas not otherwise previously studied. I rarely have to consult a dictionary to understand new terms. This can make me a really good student except now most classroom methodologies have moved to visual-based materials. I am so not a visual-thinker. Bboy, my youngest, will most likely experience this as well, based on some of his academic career so far.

Now that we have definitions and some back story out of the way, I can move on to the main gist of this discussion. I need feedback and would like it from other autistics, non-autists, NT, and well, everyone!

There is this thing in the autism community. We autistics don’t tend to pick up on socially constructed values and conventions on our own. They may need to be very explicitly spelled out for us. Some of us can just accept them as such and try to comply with them, like Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory. The character’s creators have expressed that Sheldon, the character, does NOT have autism or Asperger’s or any other label other than “genius.” However, how Sheldon handles social conventions is something of a generalization for some autistics. When he is asked to do something and he asks why, his companions often find it simpler to reply with, “It’s a social convention.” His reply is “Okay” and he complies. No further questions asked.

Others, like my son and I, need to know WHY they were constructed to exist in the first place. Once we have that understanding, we may comply IF we agree with them and/or find it rewarding to self to do so. I think that’s a common component to all human behavior, not just to autistics: if it’s rewarding to self, we’ll do it, whatever it might be. We’ll do it even if we don’t necessarily agree intellectually! Acting in a socially acceptable way has rewards in and of itself.

So, as a parent, I try to teach my children how to act in that manner, same as my parents did for me. I mean, they DRILLED socially acceptable behavior constructs into my brain over and over again until I got it. I even learned not to question the why of it all for some things. But, Bboy is tougher than I was in some respects. His logic system is different and I occasionally encounter situations where I can’t explain why but he won’t accept “Just because” answers. So, I’m going to share the most recent incident and ask for your opinion on a few points:

  1. 1.      Why do we have this particular social convention?
  2. 2.      Do you follow this convention?
  3. 3.      Does this convention have any exceptions?
  4. 4.      If there are exceptions, what are they?
  5. 5.      If you don’t follow this convention as a rule, why not?
  6. 6.      Are there any “real-world-as-a-grown-up” consequences for NOT following this convention?

I need to know how to proceed here and need these answers to help inform my decision in this incident specifically and in general, I think this discussion may help the community as a whole. Autistic individuals have taken a “this is a part of who I am and I don’t have to follow the rules, but you still do” approach in life and discussions of various topics. You know what I mean. They will name-call, bully, and everything else in between to force their opinion down your throat and how dare you stand up for yourself against those tactics! You’ve become a bully! And they are the victim simply because they have autism. That doesn’t wash for me. It never has. Everyone has choices to make and we choose our own behavior-no one else does unless they have a gun to your head. In the confusion of a quest for acceptance, many autistic individuals have taken on an approach that is unacceptable. I do desire better attitudes for myself and my sons. So, when it comes to social conventions, I have to decide which are okay to not follow and which aren’t. Which of these conventions, if I don’t follow, will seem like just a quirky thing or downright wrong? Some are clear and some aren’t. So, here goes.

It is a social convention that it is the height of rudeness to eat the “last” of something.

This is a concept that has been in my family my whole life. It’s a concept many of my friends have ascribed to, both amongst friends and their own families.  And these things may not be the “last” of their existence but the last in the house, room or possession of someone. If one eats or drinks this last, and someone else wants more, then someone would have to go and buy and/or make more. In other words, drinking or eating the last of something might create an inconvenience for that someone else. So, social convention dictates that we ask before taking the last of something. When we ask, we get either assurance that it’s okay or told no. If we get assurance, we will ask again usually with “Are you sure? We can always share it.”And then we receive more assurance and sometimes insistence. “Yes, I’m sure, go ahead! Take it. In fact, I insist!” This repeated assurance and insistence absolve the taker of any guilt over the potential inconvenience to the giver. This is how this particular convention was explained to me growing up. It sounds pretty logical to me.

I have had moments where I’ve been confused on how this applies in specific situations. For example, when I was working for a law firm, bagels, donuts, cookies, etc. were often left in the break room for everyone–usually left over from a catered meeting—to be enjoyed on a first-come, first-served basis for those who did not attend that meeting. I once came into the break room and found there was only one bagel. Do I take it? Do I take just half? Ask those in the break room currently? Or wait and ask all the other employees too? This was a large firm with about 200 employees. Or can I just take it because of the first-come, first-serve rule? Does that engage the “you snooze, you lose” law? I chose to leave it and go to the vending machine instead for my snack. It wasn’t worth the headache to save a buck. So, I know there are gray areas. I just don’t know what rules would govern in them and therefore can’t teach them to anyone else.

Now to the present: I baked cookies the other day. I gave Jerry a butter-bowl full of sugarless sugar cookies. Fake sugar was used because of his diabetes (shhh, don’t tell him it was fake sugar!). Okay, now Jerry has had a few and the next day Bboy comes over to J’s house where I am, using J’s computer. He wants to eat J’s tortilla chips and salsa. However, there is so little left of the chips that I tell him he must wait until J wakes up and ask him if it’s okay for Bboy to eat them. In order for Bboy to have “some”, he’d end up having the “last” of it. J does not get chips often and doesn’t have any more money for snacks for this month. Therefore, this would potentially inconvenience J. Bboy understands this and goes and sits down in the living room to watch T.V. until J wakes up. I hand him the butter bowl container of sugarless sugar cookies for his snack instead. By time J wakes up, there are three left! Both T and I have had some too. I figure it’s no big deal as I’m baking more soon and I baked these (forgetting the step that I already gave them to J, making them HIS to give away or not to give away).  No big deal really to J either but he takes them away from Bboy anyway because he made a meal out of them instead of a snack. J brings them into his office and offers them (the last of them) to T, my oldest, and I. I pass but T takes one and J takes one. This leaves one left in the bowl. The absolute last of the cookies. T leaves J’s house for our home (about 100 yards away as we live in the same apartment complex). J takes back the use of his office and I go into the bathroom. While in there, I hear part of an exchange between Bboy and J but do not hear all of it. When I exit, J tells me what happened:

Bboy comes into the office, talking about a bet he’d made with me and won. Daddy was telling him he’d have to tell Daddy what the bet was because he doesn’t know, because he wasn’t in on the bet making. So, Bboy proceeded to tell him (I heard that part but not what came next that led him to leave while slamming the door angrily). So, as Bboy is informing J of the bet and it’s parameters, Bboy helps himself to the last of the cookies, without asking. Bboy has developed a habit of eating J’s food without asking first—the last of it or otherwise. So we’ve been working on that and I thought the bit with the chips, was a sign that he was getting it! I mean, we’re teaching him this because I don’t want Bboy to be at work one day and help himself to someone else’s lunch! So, J replies, “Hey! You didn’t ask!” in a happy tone of voice. Tone of voice is VERY important when talking/teaching Bboy. Bboy says “But it’s MY last cookie!” and J tells him: “No, it’s MY last cookie. Mom gave those to me, remember?” Bboy then quickly raises the cookie to his mouth, and asks “Well, can I have it?” as he is breathing on it, presupposing that J will say “Yeah, since it’s already been near your mouth, go ahead.” BUT! J doesn’t say that. He says “no.” and so Bboy puts it back and stomps off, slamming the door behind him.

After relaying these events to me, I sigh. First, I did GIVE them to Bboy after giving them to J, not making it clear he can have SOME and not ALL. My mistake there! But J says it doesn’t matter who gets the last. You see, Bboy has had an obsession lately. He has to have the LAST of everything. He’s picked up on the fact that his brother usually gets the last. This could be the last of the ice cream, and it doesn’t matter that Bboy himself ate everything else in the ice cream container and this is T’s only serving. It doesn’t matter that it’s the mac and cheese served at dinner and T is getting the “last” because he’s the last one served and no one got seconds. There is one exception though: Mom gets the last soda in a box because that’s usually the only soda I get, especially if T has friends over. But usually, especially if I have had another soda, I’ll split the last between the two boys. That’s the house rule. Mom gets the last soda. So, Bboy has been on a mission to have the last of everything else. J wants him to not be so obsessive about it. I agree. It’s not worth being devastated over not getting the last of something. I mean, the kid can have eaten 90% of a 4 gallon tub of ice cream over a few days, and as long as he doesn’t get the “last” of it, he’s devastated! Crying, fit-throwing, carrying-on of all sorts occur if Bboy doesn’t get the last of something. That’s not acceptable behavior. But, if the last of something isn’t that important to be devastated over, why do we have this convention?

Hm. So, maybe it IS important but like much in life, “You win some, you lose some.” It’s not devastating when you lose. I cannot tell him the “last” of something is not important ENOUGH  to get upset over without dropping the convention of asking for the “last” of something. It’s exclusive, to him and his logic system. But is it a good idea to drop this convention? I refer back to my list of questions from above:

  1. 1.      Why do we have this particular social convention?
  2. 2.      Do you follow this convention?
  3. 3.      Does this convention have any exceptions?
  4. 4.      If there are exceptions, what are they?
  5. 5.      If you don’t follow this convention as a rule, why not?
  6. 6.      Are there any “real-world-as-a-grown-up” consequences for NOT following this convention?

What are your thoughts? What would YOU do in this situation? How would you proceed? Social conventions are constructed to keep life moving smoothly and so that we all know how to behave without offending or hurting others and to help us from getting our feelings hurt too. But is this one of those conventions I can give up on or?? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. This is set up to publish to my Facebook account too, but I’d prefer the comments here please. Thank you.


16 Responses to “Autism and Social Conventions”

  1. August 19, 2012 at 5:03 am

    It wasn’t real sugar??? I’m devastated!!

    Slight correction: B didn’t put it ‘near’ his mouth, he put it partially IN his mouth before asking, and grinned as he did so.

    Honestly, had he stopped and asked *before* he did that, I would have probably let him have it, because that cooky wasn’t that important to me. As your post mentioned, I often give the “go ahead, have it” response to the ‘last’ of a treat/item.

    It was the impish “I’ll stick it in my mouth so he HAS to give it to me” attitude that made me say no. Not a mean ‘no’, not an angry ‘no’, but a teachable ‘no’. He didn’t quite believe the response.


    “I said no. Put it back.” Which he did before storming out as you said.

    As I’ve already said, had he stopped and asked me, I would have given him permission. It was the action of sticking it IN his mouth before he asked *around* it if he could have it that made me deny it. To me, at least, asking should be more than just a formality. It should be understood that you don’t always get your way. Now, understand, I did NOT get angry at him — and even laughed with you afterward. I understand what you are struggling to teach him, and I tried to do my part.

    Good post, honey. Hope others respond as well!

    Jerry Stephen

    • August 19, 2012 at 5:28 am

      Thanks, dear! I was mistaken. Originally, I thought that’s what he had did but when recalling what you told me, and the way your hand was positioned in demonstration of what occured, I thought maybe I was wrong and it was just near his mouth. I sit corrected. The questions still stand (or sit? or lie? I dunno).

      And no, it wasn’t fake sugar! Who told you? 🙂

      I understand why you did what you did. I totally get it and agree with your reaction. I don’t want it a formality either. You know how much I disagree with doing something for formaility’s sake! I don’t force the boys to apologize if they’re not sorry, for instance. I wait until they see the error of their ways and they apologize when they feel it. That way, it means something. Same here.

      I just don’t know if I continue with the ask for the “last” convention or drop that and just stick with the “ask first when it doesn’t belong to you” convention, or what. I don’t know WHAT to do.

      I did think I had made it clear that you, at no point, took a firm voice with Bboy. I would’ve heard it if you had and you wouldn’t have had to explain to me what happened.

      But thanks for commenting and I hope others do as well!

      • August 19, 2012 at 9:01 am

        Yes, you were clear and I did not feel like I was being accused of reacting badly. I just wanted to verify that I wasn’t angry at Bboy for what he did (or tried to do, at least!). By saying you “would’ve heard it” you mean had I been ‘firm’ I would have been yelling… *laughs*

        My own opinion, btw, is that you can continue along BOTH conventions, perhaps stressing the need to ask “especially when it’s the last…”

      • August 19, 2012 at 9:19 am

        But what purpose does it serve? I mean, what real-world consequences would there be if he did NOT ask?

    • August 19, 2012 at 7:49 am

      Yeah, it sounded to me like his behavior was more of a “kid wanting to assert himself/get his way/test limits” than any sort of failure to understand/follow social conventions based on his neurology. In my opinion, you did exactly the right thing, Jerry, and it reinforces what Heather is teaching him. Good for you both – you both did an excellent job here.

      (Because of the above, I don’t know that the fact you had technically given Jerry’s cookies to BBoy matters at all, if that was his thinking, and even if so, well, you technically took them from Jerry to give to him, so if you wanted you could point out your goof and use that as a teachable moment, too. BUt as I said, it sounds like it wasn’t even about that, really.)

  2. August 19, 2012 at 6:16 am

    The rule against eating the last of something is really regional-specific. I consider it a pointless one, as all it does is encourage people to leave tiny portions just for the sake of avoiding the “last” rule. I’d much rather you eat the last of the whatever than leave one spoonful just to avoid it. But then, I’ve never thought to put an amount restriction on offered food, either. If I offer you a bowl of chips, that means that to this bowl of chips, you now have free access.

    • August 19, 2012 at 6:49 am

      Thanks! I value your input. You know I love your brain, right?

      I’m the same way about the leaving a bit left behind, too. Paradoxically, in my house growing up, if you left the tiniest bit in the milk jug, so you didn’t take the “last”, you got yelled at for it. If you did take the last without asking or informin at the least, you got yelled at. So, is it any wonder I’m confused about this rule?

      The other rule in my house is this: if you drink the last of the Crystal Light, you have to make the next jugful (which my kids avoid by saving a single drop of it) or if you use the last of the ice cubes, you have to refill it (which my kids avoid by leaving one ice cube).

      So, to me, it makes sense to drop the convention altogether. But, back to my childhood, would I be doing a disservice to my kids if I didn’t teach them the “last” rule?

      • August 19, 2012 at 7:54 am

        Aha, that explains why my dad and I so often left the empty or empty but for a few drops milk jug, half and half container, Coke, or ice cream tub in the fridge or freezer! My mom would shake her head and sigh as she tossed out the empty container.

        I remember being admonished to not take the last of the half and half so my dad could have some in his coffee (he woke up after my mom and I were already gone). Knowing that milk in coffee is an abominablet hing, I was (usually) happy to comply – or get my coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts near my school on my way in.

      • August 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

        You complied with the convention without realizing why you were doing it? Cool. I’m not alone!

        And I miss DUNKIN DONUTS!! We have one now, relatively close-by (only 30 minutes drive away). But 2/3 times, they did not make my coffee to specifications, so it’s not really worth the drive. Maybe if I”m already in that town for something else.

      • August 19, 2012 at 8:41 am

        I complied with the coffee thing because I knew the consequence was that my dad would only have milk for his coffee (unless he went to get half and half), and I knew milk is a terrible thing in coffee, so I wanted him to be able to have half and half in his coffee. And they say autistics lack empathy. 😛

        As for the empty containers – well, yes, but we didn’t really comply if they were empty exactly – but then we left a few drops so they weren’t technically empty. 😉 But, yeah, I guess. We didn’t want to be accused of taking the last portion. Even if, for all intents and purposes, we had done exactly that.

        As for your suboptimal Dunkin’ Donuts experience, may I recommend buying DD coffee in the bag, if they do that there, and preparing it at home? I do that at times. Weapons grade DD coffee is awesome. ;D

      • August 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm

        I really doubt you would be doing them a disservice. Because, in the real world, you’re very rarely eating other people’s food anyway, so it’s not going to come up that much. And if it does, I don’t think anybody cares. They care about taking without asking. Not so much about taking the last, if you’ve already been given permission to have any.

        Of course, from the time my kids are mobile, they get their own cupboards of their own food, that they can consume freely without asking, so it bothers them less, if they don’t get to eat someone else’s snacks, because they always have their own. Not that someone else’s isn’t always intrinsically more appealing, but I can usually shut down the screaming by reminding them that they have their own.

        However, I was always taught that there’s a special place in hell for people who use the last ice cube and don’t refill the tray.

      • August 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm

        Same here about the ice cubes! My mom loves her ice.

        Well, you wouldn’t potentially eat other people’s food a lot. But what about that break room scenario? I still have to teach Bboy to at least ask first, whether it’s the last or not, yes?

        And what do you think about those other autistics that are out there in the groups (and elsewhere) that are saying they don’t have to follow any social constructs or conventions but NT people should still follow them so as not to hurt the auties’ feelings?

      • August 19, 2012 at 10:43 pm

        “Always ask before using someone’s anything” is an important hard rule in situations other than one’s home. Within one’s home, and living with others, it gets complicated when some stuff is generally assumed to be communal. But, yes, always ask before using someone’s anything.

        I don’t really know which autistics you’re talking about. I’m not sure I’ve encountered them.

  3. August 19, 2012 at 8:58 am

    LOL they do sell it in the bag. Not the same as walking down to Walcott Square in Hyde Park, MA and buying a cup with sugar and cream already added.

    I prefer 1/2 and 1/2 in my coffee too. Instead I use powdered creamer instead now (cheaper). But once in awhile.. I don’t blame your dad. LOL

    Thanks for clarifying!

    • August 20, 2012 at 9:07 am

      @adkryriolexy: it won’t let me reply directly to your comment. I don’t know why.

      The autistics I was talking about –I’m pretty sure you’ve encountered them. They claim that they don’t have to follow certain conventions (like, oh, no name calling when discussing stuff) and yet, they can name call all they want because they have autism… and it makes you a bully but not them, it means they’re standing up for themselves–even if you have autism yourself.

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