Hidden Rules and the SI Cover Jinx

The SI Jinx
The Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx is so well known that SI even put it on the cover one time. (Photo credit: WBUR)

This week we received the year-end evaluation from the social kills group that Ryan attends. Other than finding it pretty much spot-on in its assessment of Ryan’s strengths, weaknesses and areas of progress, one passage stood out. One of the group’s main areas of focus this school year was “the hidden rules of middle school,” a collection of abstract, mostly social concepts that are a struggle for a lot of kids like Ryan. Here is how they evaluated Ryan’s progress with hidden rules:

“When discussing hidden rules, Ryan asked how they were different from real rules (explicit) and how the consequences of breaking them are different. In school, consequences of not doing what is expected are very real — getting a bad grade, not being able to go on a trip, being sent to the principal’s office. Through discussions with his parents and comments such as these, it has become apparent that for Ryan, the lack of clearly delineated consequences of ignoring hidden rules is very significant. This social thinking stuff just doesn’t matter like school matters.”

That’s my child in a nutshell. He sees the world in black and white. Shades of gray are messy and confusing and mostly to be avoided. If you say “rule” he equates it to some behavioral standard we set in the home or his teachers set in school. There’s a clearly delineated Right and Wrong and if you choose the Wrong side there will be Consequences.

Trying to apply such a rigid definition to social interactions is tricky, and it is a struggle for Ryan to understand. For example, he feels he can be as obnoxious as he wants to other kids at camp and as long as he doesn’t get in capital-T Trouble with the counselors, there is no consequence to his action.

Ryan doesn’t see the potential impact on the other camper because it doesn’t fit the rule. The child might be offended, he might not. Figuring out if he’s offended is even more complex. It might require interpreting non-verbal cues like facial expressions. Ryan will take his ruling from a third-party (a counselor, a teacher, a parent) instead, for those will be direct and to the point, no shades of gray, thank you very much.

Evidence if this way if thinking is everywhere in Ryan’s life. He seeks constant reassurance about things like sarcasm, even when it’s so over the top as to be obvious. The phrase, “wait, you’re just kidding, right?” is heard all the time in our house.

Ryan doesn’t like words with multiple meanings. They confuse him, because sometimes figuring out which meaning you intended requires interpreting the context, and that’s messy as well.

Our best defense against these moments is to try to get Ryan to put himself in the other person’s shoes. We might go so far as to say some obnoxious things about Ryan and ask him how it feels. This usually helps. We all know one of the struggles of autism can be seeing the world as others see it.

Luck and superstition are other aspects of life the are tinged in gray that Ryan either doesn’t get or doesn’t like.

I was reminded of this as we were watching baseball last night. The news scroll told me that the Pittsburgh Pirates put their closer, Jason Grilli, on the disabled list. This caught my attention for two reasons: 1) I’m a Cincinnati Reds fan (long story) and the Reds are chasing the Pirates in the standings. 2) Grilli was on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, the same issue that carried Ryan’s picture. This made me think immediately of 3) the SI cover jinx.

There’s a theory that being on the cover of SI is extremely unlucky, and those stricken are likely to soon experience some calamity. The theory is so ubiquitous that SI once wrote an article about it — and put it on the cover (see above). Cover subjects, particularly if they’re not regulars but everyday sports figures like Grilli, are often asked about it as soon as their cover appears.

Consider the case of Grilli, based on passages from the following two articles, which ran four days apart this week:

In the issue that hit newsstands this week, Grilli became the first Pirates player featured on the Sports Illustrated cover since Barry Bonds in May 1992. …

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who appeared on Sports Illustrated’s cover in 1978, did not realize one of his own players had earned the distinction until he saw the magazine Thursday in Pittsburgh International Airport.

“There’s no jinx,” he said. “I don’t believe in it. There are plenty of people on the cover that have gone on to do wonderful things.”

From “SI cover boy Grilli gives ailing kid signed copy,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 20, 2013

Then, this:

The Pittsburgh Pirates have placed National League saves leader Jason Grilli on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right forearm.
From “Pirates place Jason Grilli on DL,” Associated Press, July 24, 2013

I mentioned the jinx to Ryan because as you might imagine, SI has been a big topic in our house this week.

I caught his attention, but he was confused. I wish I had thought to write down his exact response, because it was priceless, and it fit right in with the issues identified in his social skills group evaluation. It went something like this: “Wait, does something bad automatically happen or is it magic?”

I noted his use of the word “magic” — an abstract concept if there ever was one. I remember thinking that was a particularly nuanced response for Ryan.

I tried to explain how the jinx really didn’t exist but that people just remember the few times something bad happened while forgetting all the times nothing did, but the moment was lost. Ryan moved on. His next question was probably about baseball statistics.

He wanted know how many hits each team usually gets in a game. He asks questions like that about sports all the time. He uses them to create and apply Rules and Consequences to the games he loves. If I give him an average number of hits or goals or, yes, shots on goal, then each game will either follow that rule or break it, and breaking it will have consequences.

It’s a remarkable coping mechanism if you think about it. Life is mostly gray areas, and for Ryan, gray areas are chaotic and confusing. He has constructed a library of thousands of rules, some of which are shared with society as a whole, some of which are all his own, to apply order to that chaos.

The tricky thing is now some of the rules — like the Hidden Rules of Middle School — even have gray areas.

To use one of Ryan’s favorite words, that is unfair.


6 thoughts on “Hidden Rules and the SI Cover Jinx

  1. I would have Loved to attend that Social Skills class. I have one more year as an aid with my buddy before he moves to Middle School. There are so many things to toss around with him before he gets there. Lunch room, lockers, walking/socializing between classes, dealing with several teachers…Ahhhh!


  2. “There’s no jinx,” he said. “I don’t believe in it. There are plenty of people on the cover that have gone on to do wonderful things.”

    Rightly quoted my friend. All these autistic children need is a little bit of care mixed with unconditional love from us. Amen.


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