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Teaching Private vs. Public Behaviors

Jason, age six, was admonished by his father for picking his nose in a public bathroom when they were at Target. However, Jason was very confused because his father had told him that if he needed to pick his nose, he should do it in private, like in the bathroom. So here he was in the Target bathroom (there were toilets and sinks, it looked like a bathroom!), but he was now being told not to pick his nose here. How was he ever going to figure out when it was okay to do this?! He had already gotten in trouble at school for picking his nose, so that is why his father told him to do it in the privacy of the bathroom! Jason just wanted some relief from a crusty nose brought on by a cold…

Teaching Private vs. Public Behaviors

There are social rules around what we can do in public versus what we can do in private. For children on the autism spectrum, these rules can seem obscure and difficult to learn. If we really stop and think about it, they are complicated! There are rules around WHERE you can do or say certain things, there are rules around WHO you can and can’t say certain things, and WHAT you can or can’t divulge. 

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These are a lot of rules to navigate for a child on the spectrum whose internal guidance system does not immediately pick up on these socially constructed rules. It can also be nerve-wracking for parents to teach the idiosyncrasies of these rules, such as what Jason’s dad encountered in teaching his son he could only pick his nose in the bathroom. Jason’s dad failed to mention the nuance of either being in one’s OWN bathroom, or perhaps behind the restroom door stall in a public restroom. The nuances neurotypicals take for granted are a lot to think about.

Additionally, certain behaviors can land a child or teen in hot water or even legal trouble if social norms are not adhered to. It puts a lot of pressure on parents to teach very specifically about things they themselves likely take for granted. It also is not a one-time lesson; these rules change as a child gets older and according to context, including cultural norms.


There are four spheres of life where we spend time, and parents can educate their child about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in each sphere. 

Adapted from Organization for Autism Research (n.d.): 

Private place behaviors

Children need to understand there are certain behaviors that can only occur in private places such as their bedroom or bathroom (with doors closed). This can include picking one’s nose, getting undressed, bathing or showering, passing gas, and going potty. These are easier to understand because there are firmer rules around these behaviors if you do them outside of a private place.

Public place behaviors

Like private behaviors, these behaviors are easier to understand as you see everyone doing them. This includes saying hello to friends, waving, laughing together, playing, eating, and so on. What you do in public you can do in private (but not vice versa).

There are strict rules about not doing private things in public spaces; these are typically more readily understood. However, the spheres of semi-private and semi-public are more nuanced and will require more attention and explanation both in identifying the place itself and deciding what behaviors are appropriate in these places. Additionally, what is appropriate may depend upon the type of other people within these spheres. It is these “gray areas” that may cause more problems for children on the spectrum as they struggle to understand what you should and should not say in these environments.


While it may be okay to undress in the doctor’s exam room, the door must be closed and the doctor must have asked for the undressing. As in our case scenario, what may be okay in the home bathroom may not be acceptable in a restroom in public. 


These are typically shared spaces that are not fully public, but also not fully private, such as the office where a parent works. There may be a bit of privacy, but different rules of behavior are required than in more private situations.

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As we look at the Information Sharing Stairs, we will find there are some people children should feel comfortable sharing almost anything with, but as you move up the stairs, a child should become less comfortable sharing information and learn to ask parents if he/she is unsure if he/she should share information with these individuals. 

Information sharing stairs

A child can understand there are some people he/she is freer to share information with, but as he/she moves up the stairs, he/she  needs to be more careful about what information is shared. Using a visual such as stair steps may be helpful.


Parents also need to help their children understand what personal information or behaviors are appropriate to share (that is what can become public information). The more private the information, the less likely it is it should be shared with others on the upper end of the Information Sharing Stairs. 

Personal information typically refers to data or behavior that is about hygiene or grooming, medical information, some financial information, and information of a sexual nature. But it also includes phone numbers, addresses, birthdays. Parents need to be able to explain to their information what NOT to share. 


Teaching children the difference between public and private behaviors is critical and challenging. It is important to remember:

  • Children need to know the difference between private and public places, as well as the gradations between semi-private and semi-public variations
  • Children need to know what private information is, and what they can freely share in public
  • Children need to know whom it is appropriate to share information with, and whom they should not share information with

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More nuances on the HOW to communicate topics (e.g. voice tone) and WHEN it is appropriate may also need to be explained by parents. With patience and clear instruction, children with autism can become socially competent.


Feldman, B. (Sept. 2020). “Talking to Your Kids About Giving Out Personal Information.” Surfnetkids. Feldman Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.surfnetkids.com/tech/636/talking-to-your-kids-about-giving-out-personal-information/.

Organization for Autism Research (n.d.).  Public vs. private.  Retrieved from https://researchautism.org/sex-ed-guide-public-private/.

Wrobel, M. J. (2020).  Why good hygiene and grooming?  In R. Bedard and L. Hecker’s (eds.) A spectrum of solutions for clients with autism:  Treatment for adolescents and adults (pp. 244-252). Routledge.

This article was featured in Issue 118 – Reframing Education in the New Normal

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