Why Unwritten Rules are Unfair Rules for Neurodiverse People

First thing’s first.

What are “unwritten rules”, exactly?

Unwritten rules are supposedly natural social and organisational conventions that are not codified anywhere specifically.

Many of them represent long-established traditions passed down hand-to-mouth, like the rules we learn in childhood.

They may be unwritten and nonverbal, but they are in practice enforced much more often than written rules.

Such unwritten rules include the need for flattery rather than focus in some situations, how to address a particular person when talking to them, needing to create what they consider a “good impression” to supervisors and managers, and adhering to traditions that may seem strange or illogical.

These rules are generally adhered to even when it is ultimately to the detriment of that organisation or society, or when it only benefits a small clique.

Breaking these unwritten rules can have serious consequences even if no law or rule-book says so, and even when it seems unfair from a logical perspective or when the unwritten rules cause serious problems-and this is particularly problematic for neurodiverse people, especially autistic people.

Like so many autistic people, I have in the past struggled with “unwritten rules” which are supposed to come to people naturally via implicit, visual social cues.

Many of these unwritten rules are developed more by body language than verbal language; social psychology tells us that 93% of communication is not explicitly verbal (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967).

I have in particular struggled with making good eye contact or matching topics to a particular social context, and this is most problematic during interviews.

As autistic people struggle greatly with nonverbal language, many unwritten rules are unfair for them and many non-autistic people, especially those in power, are unwilling to explain it all.

People with other neurodiverse conditions like ADHD struggle with unwritten rules as well, due to the factors of impulse control and concentration.

Sensory issues are also a strong factor in dealing with unwritten rules and conventions.

In her book, “The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships” autistic author Temple Grandin in conjunction with Sean Barron, Grandin cites several examples of unfair unwritten rules such as social conformity requiring substantial expense or wearing uncomfortable clothes.

Barron describes how quickly he lost friends through failing to update his style to a particular context and failing to observe the importance of what should be kept secret and what should not be, as does Grandin.

First impressions are the clearest example of why unwritten rules become unfair rules.

Do we really need all these unwritten rules?

The short answer is no.

All rules within a particular organisation, society, or context should be made as explicit as possible from the very beginning, especially to someone who is new to an organisation or career, or to someone who is autistic, has ADHD, or another neurodiverse condition.

After all, only written laws, or aspects of common law with a written legal precedent, are legally enforceable.

Therefore, only written rules (whether online or offline) should matter, especially given the need to be inclusive to neurodiverse people.

In any case, many established conventions have to be broken at some point, irrespective of the short-term consequences, in order to right wrongs or fix long-standing problems.



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