We Have No Intuitive Concept of Social Hierarchy

In my last post, I talked about why it is so incredibly important to answer the question, “Why?” when an autistic person asks it. While I was explaining, one of the things I revealed is that autistic people rarely have an intuitive concept of social hierarchy.

In the neurotypical world, people just know that people who are considered to be an authority figure (parents, teachers, coaches, employers, clergy, etc.), are to be automatically treated with deference and respect.

(There are always exceptions to this, but as a rule, it’s true.)

People who are seen as equals (siblings, schoolmates, teammates, co-workers, and fellow parishioners, etc.), are treated differently. For example, more laughing and joking, more sarcasm, more humor, risque conversations about sex, religion, and politics. While these topics can cause arguments, they are seen as acceptable and “the norm”, for the most part.

Autistic people have no intuitive concept of social hierarchy. I say ‘intuitive’ because this is a skill we can learn, but it does not come naturally to us the way it does to neurotypicals.

(Article continues below.)


The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:


This can cause serious miscommunication and unintentional abuse towards the autistic person, especially when the neurotypical person misunderstands the intentions of the autistic person to be that of disrespect.

To autistic people, there is no inherent difference between the CEO of a company or the janitor, a billionaire or a homeless person, an elder or a child. Everyone gets treated equally!

– Jaime A. Heidel

Which can actually be quite an innocent and beautiful concept, but it can also cause very awkward situations.

For example, an autistic person may make an off-color sexual joke to a friend on a Saturday night and then make the exact same off-color joke to their great aunt on Sunday morning in church.

Their innocent reasoning behind this is that it made their friend laugh, so it must be funny, so telling it to someone else will get the same response!

This is a critical error, but we have absolutely no clue unless we are told specifically and why it’s inappropriate to say certain things at certain times to certain people.

So, NTs, try to imagine this: You had a good experience with a friend the night before, and socializing is difficult for you. You were so proud to get a positive response that you can’t wait to get another one! Maybe you’re getting the hang of this social thing after all!

Then, you tell the joke again. Suddenly, an entire congregation is staring directly at you in open-mouthed shock and disgust. They all begin scolding you at once, and you feel so confused and horrible, you wish a church pew would open up and swallow you whole.

The feelings we experience at moments like this would be akin to a neurotypical person getting hit in the stomach with a bowling ball while riding a rollercoaster upside down in 110 degree heat with 5 different songs from completely different genres blasting in their headphones all at once!

Many autistic people have had an incredible amount of these colossal misunderstandings that have eventually lead to us developing PTSD because the reactions of others were not only the exact OPPOSITE of what we expected, said reactions are often loud, confusing, and disorienting and are sometimes accompanied by verbal and physical abuse.

This is why explaining, being specific, and answering those “why” questions are SO important. It’s also why it is never a good idea to assume the autistic person in your life knows what they are saying or doing is inappropriate!

These situations are going to come up, no matter how much explaining you try to do to prevent it, so try to look at it a different way.

One, it may be embarrassing (but it’s sometimes kind of funny), and, more importantly, these moments can be used to teach and explain what is considered inappropriate and not in neurotypical society (so a total stranger doesn’t someday beat us up in an alley because we’ve continued the behavior into adulthood).

Great Aunt Edna will recover from the off-color joke told right in the middle of Sunday Mass. The autistic person who unknowingly made said joke in the wrong company will not be so lucky if they are screamed at and treated like they did it on purpose.

Yes, I’m sure there are autistic people in the world who WOULD do something like that on purpose, but I truly think it’s rare. In any event, the best response you can have is to assume innocence and teach, especially if this is the first time it’s happening.

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10 Responses

  1. May 28, 2019

    […] you’re an NT, I’m really going to knock you on your ass with this next revelation: Autistic people do not have an inherent understanding of social hierarchy. To us, a CEO is no different than a janitor, a child no different than a parent, a billionaire no […]

  2. April 20, 2020

    […] I explained in a previous post, social hierarchy isn’t something we intuitively understand, so those details are not as important to […]

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    […] change based on the people they are with, the relationship they have with them, social hierarchy (of which autistics know nothing until it is taught to us), the mood everyone is in, the weather, […]

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    […] talking to you now? I’ve always talked this way. Blunt, direct, upfront, no concept of social hierarchy, totally on par with adults (good thing I am one now), and with all the college-level vocabulary […]

  5. April 24, 2020

    […] I think for most neurotypical people, the focus is on social connection and social hierarchy with the task being more in the background of […]

  6. June 25, 2020

    […] Autistic people do not have an inherent understanding of social hierarchy. To us, a CEO is no different than a janitor, a child no different than a parent, a billionaire no different than a homeless person. […]

  7. July 5, 2020

    […] overloaded, and overstimulated to the point where we forget social hierarchy and the mask and just start swearing or telling it like it is, and, the NTs we’ve tried to […]

  8. August 11, 2020

    […] The problem with this, as I explained in a previous post, is that asking questions is also considered a no-no in neurotypical society in many different social situations depending on social hierarchy. […]

  9. November 12, 2020

    […] neurotypical people approach friendships slowly and based on common interests, shared beliefs, and social status. They start with small talk, reading each other’s body language and facial expressions along […]

  10. December 8, 2020

    […] We Have No Intuitive Concept of Social Hierarchy […]

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