After we had walked about a block, talking excitedly about our favorite entries, someone suddenly shouted, “Hey, you’re going the wrong way!” Initially I wondered why the man was being so rude to us and several other people who had traversed the last block with us. But as I stepped aside to allow him to pass, I suddenly saw a cardboard sign at the far edge of the sidewalk. On it was posted, “ONE WAY,” with a series of arrows pointing the opposite direction from the way we had been walking.
In our excitement to join our community’s fall tradition for the first time, with the added confusion of large crowds, darkness, rain, and a sea of umbrellas, we had never seen the few signs directing foot traffic in a particular direction. And because there were other people in the immediate area who were walking the same way we were, we never noticed that we were in fact going the wrong way!
It struck me that this is how people with autism experience much of life. They head out to pursue a particular goal, not realizing that there is a specific way to do it; not reading the signs around them indicating what people expect from them. Often they continue down that path until someone (not always kindly) informs them that they’re going the wrong way, either academically, emotionally, financially, physically, or socially.
We would all do well to remember that their faux pas (or “violation of social norms”) often isn’t intentional. Typically people with autism mean well, but they are missing valuable information that will help them identify and meet others’ expectations. There are a host of strategies we can use to help them be successful, decreasing everyone’s stress and frustration along the way, and helping everyone to enjoy the journey.