The Non-Optional Social Convention Solution

By Dan Coulter

In the Big Bang Theory TV show universe, physicist Sheldon Cooper has never been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. But he has many quirky behaviors common to people who have.

One of those behaviors is being stubborn and voicing frustration when the world doesn't conform to his personal logic. In an early episode, Sheldon's neighbor Penny is preparing to throw a birthday party for Sheldon's roommate, Leonard. Their friend Howard listens as Sheldon resists Penny's urging that he should buy Leonard a birthday present. Sheldon argues, “The entire institution of gift giving makes no sense. Let's say that I go out, and I spend $50 on you. It's a laborious activity, because I have to imagine what you need, whereas you know what you need. Now I could simplify things, just give you the $50 directly. Then you could give me $50 on my birthday, and so on until one of us dies, leaving the other one old and $50 richer.”

Penny is stumped, until Howard whispers she should tell Sheldon it's a “non-optional social convention.” Penny does so and Sheldon immediately accepts that explanation, saying, “Ah! Fair enough.”

I think the lesson for those of us who have children with Asperger Syndrome is to learn not to assault their logic, but to counsel from consequences.

For example, say your family is at the beach, and you want to eat in a restaurant that requires patrons to wear shoes. Your son, who has Asperger Syndrome, points out that the restaurant has an outdoor seating area only separated from the beach by a rope. People on the other side of the rope are walking by barefoot, so it doesn't make sense that he should have to put on shoes just because he's on the wrong side of a rope.

Rather than arguing with your son about health codes and such, you might get better results with the non-optional social convention approach. Put yourself on his side and agree that it doesn't make sense, but point out that not wearing shoes means you can't eat there. You can observe that many restaurants have that rule and ask family members to vote on whether it's worth following the not-so-logical rule to get to eat. If you keep everything calm and non-confontational, you may win your son over. The comfort of being right may help him accept doing something that doesn't fit his logic. Even if he is unconvinced and you wind up seeking out a hot dog stand on the beach, you may avoid a meltdown that's traumatic for everyone.

An even better approach is to have a discussion about non-optional social conventions before a situation comes up. If you help your son see the benefits of acting based on consequences, he can pre-program his brain to accept the greater logic of behaving in a way that gets the results you both want. Especially if you make using the phrase, “It's a non-optional social convention” a fun thing that lets you both laugh at how crazy the world can be.

No guarantees here, because no one approach works for every child. But if your child is a fan of The Big Bang Theory, he or she might get a kick out of the non-optional social convention solution that works for a brilliant, quirky character on a great TV show.

By the way, you can see the exchange between Sheldon, Penny, and Howard in Episode 16, Season 1 of the Big Bang Theory if you look it up on YouTube.

It's big fun that could be a big help.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Dan Coulter is the author of the video, "Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills." You can find more information and articles on his website:

Copyright Dan Coulter 2014 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved

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