Many people can sense when they have gone "too far." The responses they get, either internally or externally, signal that it's time to stop, or even to backtrack if possible. They begin to right the wrongs, and to heal the hurts that resulted from their words or actions. Ideally, they learn from experience and watch their future words and actions more closely to ensure that the invisible line between "far" and "too far" is not crossed again (at least not in the same way).
If you know about autism spectrum disorders (ASD), you are aware that it can be difficult for individuals with this diagnosis (as well as many others without the diagnosis) to "sense" the line between "far" and "too far," to identify the need to stop their words or actions, or to repair the situation once it has deteriorated.
How do we teach this? While it may be tempting to develop an exhaustive list of "do's" and "do not's" for individuals to follow, the nature of social situations creates a relatively unpredictable playing field; one that is not particularly conducive to a black and white list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. We know that there should be some absolutes--rules that are always followed, with consequences for disobedience. However, not all things can be stated as rules, and not all rules are intended to be followed absolutely. When I was in high school, we were not allowed to throw snow balls on school property. The school administration wisely indicated that injuries and/or out-of-control crowd situations could result if the rules were not followed. One day, as I was leaving school, I quickly crafted a snowball and aimed it at an oncoming target, and successfully hit it squarely in the forehead! I suppose the most amazing aspect of this wasn't that I was able to hit something smaller than the side of a building (my aim was never very good), or that I--always a good student and rule-follower--would break the school rules, but that I didn't get in trouble for going "too far." You see, I "sensed" that the rules could be bent in this situation, and that what typically would cause problems for me would not be an issue in this situation. And fortunately, I was right! (Keep reading to find out why!)
So, if we sometimes need to "sense" the social line of acceptability rather than always constructing it out of specific rules rigidly followed, how do we convey that to those with ASD? We know that an inability to avoid going "too far" damages or ruins relationships, leads students to punishment or expulsion, entices boyfriends and girlfriends (or those who wish to carry that title) toward undesirable or dangerous situations, and often, propels people of all ages into the hands of the legal system.
The best resource I've found which deals specifically with this dilemma is Kari Dunn Buron's A 5 is Against the Law. If you're familiar with her previous book, The Incredible 5-Point Scale, then you know the value (and effectiveness) of teaching this scale to individuals to help them monitor and adjust their emotions and behaviors across a wide variety of environments and situations. Chapters in this newer book include, "What is a 5-Point Scale?" and a great one on social understanding, "Different People See and THINK About Things Differently." While much of the book's content can be applied to a variety of scenarios, the author also provides valuable specific information such as "When a Kiss or Glance Becomes a Crime." (She has since written, Social Behavior and Self-Management: 5-Point Scales for Adolescents and Adults, another helpful resource.)
As we continue to teach social insight and understanding, our goal is to have fewer incidents of "crossing the line" or "going too far"--on BOTH sides of the social equation!
P.S. My long-ago snowball hit a member of the school administration--our vice-principal--right in the middle of his forehead. At approximately 6 feet, 5 inches tall, he was a formidable opponent. However, he was also a long-time family friend, AND he broke the rules first by throwing a snowball at me (although he missed)! We were both shocked when my hastily launched missile hit its target, but I knew as well as he did that given the circumstances, he would have a hard time justifying punishment for me! In an interesting twist of life events, he is now the president of the college where one of my sons is a student. We have never discussed the snowball incident, but I still greatly admire and respect him, even as I am aware of his playful side.