The “hidden curriculum” refers to the set of rules or guidelines that are often not directly taught but are assumed to be known. Most people automatically pick up this hidden information; their brains work that way. For those of us with autistic brains, this information is truly hidden; we do not automatically pick it up. Hence, the term, “hidden curriculum.”

Even though our brains are not wired to automatically pick up this hidden social information, we can learn it. Once we learn it then we know it just like everybody else. Sounds easy. It is not! Even so, it is very important because not understanding the hidden curriculum can not only lead to social embarrassment, but can affect us in terms of getting and keeping a job and even staying out of legal trouble!

One reason it is difficult to learn the hidden curriculum is that there are many variables. One of those variables is age. Something nobody ever explains to you as you grow up is that lots of rules change.

For example, it is perfectly fine for a kindergartener to hold his mother’s hand when walking into school, but if a fifth grader did this, he would become a target for teasing and, possibly, bullying.

The handholding rule changes again when we grow up. Once you are old enough to date, hand holding becomes a romantic gesture, and still later it becomes a helpful gesture as parents become aged and physically need the assistance of a hand to navigate some public settings.

It is important for individuals with autism spectrum disorders to learn the hidden curriculum that changes with age. Not understanding age-related variables can be more damaging than social embarrassment. Sometimes behavior that a child can get by with can incur legal consequences for an adult displaying the same behavior.

For example, when Pete and Greg were growing up, Pete would ring the doorbell of Greg’s home when he went to visit. If nobody answered the door, Pete would tap on the window, cup his hands around his eyes, put his face up to the window and look in to see if Greg was home. This worked for Pete all through high school. Greg did not respond to the doorbell, but when he heard Pete tapping on the window and peering in, he would open the door for Pete. This was O.K. while Greg was living in the family home.

After high school, Greg and Pete both received county support services that enabled them to move out of their family homes. Going to visit at Greg’s new apartment for the first time, Pete rang Greg’s doorbell, and when nobody answered, as was his habit, he rapped on the front window and peered in. But Pete was no longer peering into the window of Greg’s family home where everybody knew him. Instead, it was the window of the downstairs tenant in Greg’s new apartment building. Also, Pete was no longer a child, but had grown into a man.

In response to a phone call from the downstairs tenant, the police arrived, and promptly handcuffed and arrested Pete.

Because it is so important for those of us who are autistic to learn the hidden curriculum and because there are so many variables, I have started a list of the age related variables that I have learned. There are many, many more age related hidden curriculum items. If you find it helpful to use this list please do so. In addition, feel free to add the items you have learned.

  • It is common for children to tell their age to new friends. This is not information that adults usually share when meeting new friends.
  • Age ranges on toys and games are guidelines meant to advertise that most often children of the stated age range will enjoy a given toy or game. It is perfectly fine for anyone, including you, to enjoy the toy or game even if you do not fall into the specified age range.
  • When playing a game with a young child, it is better to let the child win than to end up with a crying child who lost, even if you are the better player.
  • A gift of roses or candy on Valentine’s Day is most often interpreted as an expression of romantic interest.
  • If it is a custom in your family to pull the wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey, even if you have done this for many years, know that you will likely be expected to graciously give up your spot to any child who may be present.
  • Even though you may have loved the custom of trick-or-treating as a child, you are no longer able to do this as an adult. But sometimes adults have Halloween parties where the guests dress in costumes.
  • Even though as a small child you may have enjoyed sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall, it is not something you may do as an adult. The exception would be at a special party where sitting on Santa’s lap is O.K. for anyone to do, including adults.
  • Sometimes a child has a napkin tucked under his chin to act as a bib. It is usually not acceptable for an adult to do so in public.
  • Even though you may enjoy using the slides and the swings in a public park, as an adult you may want to avoid using a children’s park. Often times a grown man who frequents a child’s playground is thought to of as a possible pedophile.

As we take our place as adults in society, we need to learn the hidden curriculum, if for no other reason, simply to stay safe. We won’t always have a trusted friend or family member with us. If we engage in behavior in public that is considered suspicious, we could run into trouble. Once an adult, many things we did as children are now considered not okay, creepy or, in some cases, illegal. It behooves us to learn this information.


Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006). Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009). Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009). The Power of Words: How we think about people with autism spectrum disorders matters! Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013). The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.