In my work with students on the autism spectrum, we emphasize direct, overt teaching of the “hidden curriculum” that runs parallel to the academic curriculums taught in schools. The hidden curriculum refers to those unwritten rules of social behavior that most kids seem to acquire without effort. One of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is the inability to observe and demonstrate those seemingly natural social behaviors. So it is with great interest that I noted this quote in Henry Jenkins’ paper on digital learning and media (Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century):
Access to this participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter school and the workplace.
Later in the paper Jenkins again emphasizes that nearly all forms of digital literacy “involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking” (p. 4). We have been talking so much about how digital literacy is intertwined with reading and writing; traditionally reading and writing have been perceived as solitary activities (rightly or unrightly so), but digital literacy pulls in this third realm–the social world.
In many ways the social nature of online interaction works in favor of students with ASD. There are no facial cues to read, vocal tones to interpret, physical proximity issues to monitor and adjust. This new technological interactivity offers more opportunities to participate and succeed without standing out as socially awkward. But there are social rules in the digital world too, and I wonder how much of this will be easy for my students to acquire. Last year I had to specifically teach one of my students with ASD how to post a friendly comment on another person’s blog. He was excited about interacting with his peers online, but even in that forum his delayed social skills were a factor. I don’t know if this will be the case for most of my students on the spectrum, but it is something I wonder about.