P’s & Q’s – a weird phrase that has nothing to do with eating green peas or queuing. Although interestingly if you want to teach someone to spell queue a great help is the phrase queue Before u wEe Before u wEe. Anyway, I have been talking online about manners and etiquette with my little sister (whanau) and she asked if I could explain my views on this and autism.

Basically, I was brought up to be polite, Mum (and Dad) insisted on good manners – nothing was going to be given without a please, and it might be removed without a please, a simple system which guaranteed that I learned to say please and thank you and understood the reason behind doing so, even if my understanding was slightly skewed…

I went to boarding school and my peers’ families all thought I was ‘lovely, a really polite girl’, this despite the fact I was extremely clumsy and would often accidentally break things, usually when at someone else’s house; ornaments or cups/mugs/plates, although the odd door handle or tap seemed to give in to my misguided depth perception. The mere fact of saying please and thank you appropriately opened up untold social doors for me, which was a huge bonus when you take into account my penchant for being slightly too honest… Such as the time I reportedly remarked that the food has tasted much better than it had looked, which if you think about the UK in the 1970’s you will realize is hugely inappropriate.

In turn, when I read about Temple Grandin’s views on the importance of teaching etiquette and manners I felt vindicated in my strict dogma of please and thank you. I have noticed that I am often the only person to say thank you to cleaners in public places, wait staff in self service cafe’s, station staff etc, though most people on the bus route I use do say thanks to the bus driver which seems to always bring a little cheer to the drivers. The response to these ‘social niceties” has taught me that as much as anything being polite, using manners, is about valuing other people and their contributions to your life at that point in time. Manners cost nothing but can bring joy and a sense of accomplishment to others and can importantly, increase the acceptance of those of us who can be social awkward much of the time.

I know the signs for please and thank you and have noticed that when I am with someone using sign, others still appreciate it when they get a thanks or a please, and I am happy to prompt kids to do this if they don’t do so automatically. Teachers and other professionals that autistic kids some into contact with will find it easier to like and respond positively to kids who are polite, even if they exhibit exactly the same challenges, or more, than another kid who never says please or thank you.

For autistic adults who work, asking colleagues if you can get them a tea, coffee or water when you are about to have a meeting with them has almost miraculous results in terms of acceptance and appreciation. I think it is to do with the idea of reciprocity, that when you do something that is perceived of as inherently thoughtful or appreciative, the person feels cared about and valued and in turn is more likely to care about and value you.

Which reminds me of my biggest learning curve around social niceties – and all I am going to say on this is; if you want to teach anyone a skill that ensures people will respond more positively to them in the immediate future, teach then that “other people like it when you smile at them” and model natural joyful smiles that occur when we anticipate our favourite things.

If two people, autistic or not, are up for a job, with the same qualifications and experience, the one who makes the more favourable impression will get the job. This favourable impression can be acheived in a number of ways;

  • dressing appropriately in clean smelling and looking clothes
  • responding politely and accurately to the question
  • AND not least and easiest of all, smiling as if you really are glad to see your interviewers!

Please do teach your kids to be polite, to give up their seats on public transport for people who are struggling to stand (unless they are), to hold open the door as they walk through, to say please and thank you and smile at others, it may well help them succeed in life in ways you have never imagined. Of course you may imagine all kinds of greatness, in which case, just do it because it makes life easier for everyone in the long run!