Autistic Nottingham Book Club:

The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Book Review

Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism By Temple Grandin and Sean Barron

Report by: Leigh Woosey

Autistic Nottingham Book Club December 17th 

This book makes a great promise with its title, but our consensus was that it took a long time to deliver very little.

The first two thirds of the book (divided into “acts”) cover a series of biographical scenes and vignettes from the authors. We were given insight into how ASC manifested itself differently for each of them: Grandin described how she saw the world in discrete pictures like an internal google image search, while Barron conceived the world as sets of inflexible rules. While this section offered some moments that we could all empathise with, such as tales of being socially excluded in secondary school, it proved overlong, repetitive and an obstacle to understanding the book. In addition, both authors failed to acknowledge their privilege in growing up in affluent, middle-class, suburban 1960s america and how this had coloured their world view and the rules they derived from that view.

Grandin especially seems to take an attitude that raises many questions. Her upbringing led her to believe that people with ASC can just overcome behaviours that are problematic to NTs if they just work hard enough or learn enough lessons, this comes with an ‘othering’ of ASC individuals compared to NTs. Grandin also gives an implied approval to ABA, disregarding the well known harms of that treatment. Puzzlingly she also claims to have no emotional drives or motivations, as if conforming to very old stereotypes about ASC but later in the book describes some very emotionally motivated behaviours such as using anonymous phone calls to harass a neighbour as revenge for making false accusations against her.

The actual rules are broadly useful, if simplistic and probably not new for ASC adults. Their explanations are also weighed down with overlong explanations from the authors’ lives, each taking a chapter to detail. The first two rules (“Rules are Not Absolute. They are Situation-based and People-based” and “Not Everything is Equally Important in the Grand

Scheme of Things”) seem to undermine the others; not by being untrue, but because they fail to explain when rules might vary or how to anticipate or adapt. 

Many of the rest of the rules seemed biased to the culture the author’s grew up in (“Being Polite is Appropriate in Any Situation” is not necessarily true in a blue collar workplace or deprived urban comprehensive school, for example) but others some gave rise to informative discussion (“Not Everyone Who is Nice to Me is My Friend”, “Everyone in the World Makes Mistakes. It Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Day”). Rule 8, “Know When You’re Turning People Off”, prompted the idea that ASC individuals may enjoy hearing others infodump about their passions in a way that NTs don’t and therefore we don’t turn each other off when we talk in that way. We also talked about the nature of empathy and projection.

The greatest shortcoming of the book was that it lacked any explanation as to why these rules existed, so it was ultimately of limited use to understanding the social world or motivations of NTs, or even (by extensions) of ourselves. It could have framed the rules in discussions of Social Hierarchy, Social Proof, Game Theory, Outgroup Bias, Non-Verbal Communication, Theory of Mind and Social Repair that would have provided a basis for understanding the real unwritten rules of social interaction. Instead the book limited itself to the experiences of the authors (with a very occasional sprinkling of others’ research, anecdotes or hints at wider ideas) that came across as self-indulgent, paternalistic and alienating.

The Rules, Summarised with comments:

Rule #1: Rules are Not Absolute. They are Situation-based and People-based 

Rules for Behaviour may different from environment to environment (School Vs Home) or depending on who you are talking to (Teach or Boss or Parent).

Comment: This only touched on the vastly and sometimes diametrically different rules that apply in different cultures, such as gift-giving in Japan or across class groupings.

Rule #2: Not Everything is Equally Important in the Grand Scheme of Things 

The authors split their everyday rules into tiers of importance, with some being just courtesy to facilitate friendly communication or absolutely essential and inviolable. 

Rule #3: Everyone in the World Makes Mistakes. It Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Day 

Making mistakes and doing things imperfectly is a part of learning and a step on the path to doing them well, and it’s okay to accept that. If one aspect of something is spoiled, you don’t necessarily have to throw the whole thing away. 

Comment: We had experiences where something had acquired a scratch or mark and we had reacted badly, as if the whole thing had been ruined, and would rather have had support dealing with the negative feelings that had brought up.

Rule #4: Honesty is Different than Diplomacy.

Don’t just say things because they are true, consider how they will make the person hearing them feel.

Comment: In many cases our bluntness or lack of artifice in how we speak has led people to see us as trustworthy and fair. The advice in the book also seems couched in ideas of good (western, upper middle class) manners and doesn’t inform on how to communicate diplomatically except on the most basic level.   

Rule #5: Being Polite is Appropriate in Any Situation 

Like good hygiene and appropriate clothes, this is essential to gain social acceptance. If you make a mistake or do something wrong, admit it and apologise

Comment: This seems to justify all our criticisms into one section. The manners it proposes are specific to one social class, and it doesn’t expand to explain the social psychology behind them so the reader might be able to generalise to other situations. It’s pragmatic, but also dogmatic in it’s approach.

Rule #6: Not Everyone Who is Nice to Me is My Friend 

Relates stories about oversharing resources and not treating everyone as if they are equally close or trustworthy and gives an example of an abusive relationship from Barron’s past.

Comment: We used this to discuss the notion of healthy boundaries and how NTs also fall for exploitative individuals who pretend to be their friends, giving the lie to claims of superior theory of mind or empathy.

Rule #7: People Act Differently in Public than They Do in Private

Things you do in private, such as scratching or making a mess, are not acceptable in public. Also people may hide how they really feel so ap[pear happier and more functional in public settings. Their hidden moods may still influence their behaviours and decisions, though.

Comment: we discussed how it is hard for us to be different people in different situations. This was a mixed chapter with no clear focus, making it harder to understand

Rule #8: Know When You’re Turning People Off 

Talking too much on a certain topic may bore others. Don’t discuss personal or embarrassing topics unless you know a person very well, good hygiene is essential.

Comment: Few of us made it this far due to the poor structure of the book. Again, little insight given into the social psychology at play in social relationships that would have been relevant and helpful.

Rule #9: “Fitting In” is Often Tied to Looking and Sounding Like You Fit In 

You need to follow the informal and formal dress codes and expected behaviors of any environment if you want to be welcomed there, regardless of what you would rather do.

Comment: This is surprisingly pragmatic. It is almost refreshing given the pervasive and unrealistic ‘just be yourself’ advice we encounter in inspirational social media posts. Doesn’t detail how NTs pickup rules by ‘osmosis’ or how they police what’s appropriate.

Rule #10: People are Responsible for Their Own Behaviors

Anger management is an essential skill. Autism is not an excuse for lazyness or lashing out. Don’t get hung up on other people’s illogical behaviours.

Comment: This appears to be some ‘tough advice for life’, but it also takes a ‘you should just try harder’ approach at times. As a result it comes across as potentially unhelpful.

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