Since my son was four years old, we've made a point of returning to his pediatric neuropsychologist every two to three years for an evaluation. It's not for the purpose of diagnostics (his primary diagnosis of PDD-NOS has remained unchanged since 2003), but to assess his visual-spatial reasoning, cognitive and social abilities, expressive and receptive speech, and fine and gross motor skills. The best part about the comprehensive report written after all the tests are compiled and analyzed is the page of recommendations the evaluating team develops. These suggestions are specific to home and school teams, lending themselves to better parenting and incorporation into the IEP (Individualized Education Plan).
When we were facing the transition to middle school for our firstborn, one of the best recommendations seems now to be the most obvious to me: Explain everything. When you're watching a story on the news about the aftermath of a tsunami, talk about why the person being interviewed is crying. When a commercial makes you laugh, explain that the play on words is what makes that funny. If you ask him to put deodorant on before he leaves for school, tell him it's because his hormones are starting to prepare him for being an adult, and that means sweat in places like armpits gets smelly.
I remember reading in a book when I was expecting this same child that I should speak to him while pregnant and while he's an infant, well before his own verbal abilities formed. It seemed unnatural at first, but came more easily as practiced. I have found the same to be true with explaining the "hidden curriculum" we take for granted.
It's just as important (if not more) for my daughter with Asperger's Syndrome. She seems more aware of these daily vagaries and therefore more confounded. She will often come to me explaining a social situation that she felt she handled awkwardly. We do a little debrief. She starts to tell me who was involved and what occurred by her perception, and I begin to ask questions. "When you laughed at her, were other kids laughing, too? What did her face do when you laughed? Did she smile or hang her head?" And, since she's been taught to notice these things, she recalls. While we're talking through it, she might come up with a response on her own that might have been more appropriate. Sometimes it warrants an apology to her friend; but it always results in a better understanding of the scenario.
And while the brain wiring associated with autism spectrum disorders makes the hidden curriculum piece more difficult to grasp, it doesn't mean that these teachable moments should be relegated to the population of individuals with ASD. If you observe a situation in the classroom, on the playground, or in your home that presents an opportunity for a social-emotional lesson, capitalize on it! Perhaps you saw a student stand up for another when group behavior was starting to deteriorate. Be sure to point out how you appreciated the UPstander quality the model student displayed. Maybe your own child made an unnecessary judgment about a child nearby who responded in an unexpected way to environmental stimuli. Remind him that we don't all process information in the same way.
In being mindful of the value of these teachable moments, we will contribute positively to the mental well-being of the children in our care.