Thursday, December 10, 2009

Social Skills for Aspies

(No, this is not specifically a transgender subject. But it is a subject that concerns me.  And I do think social skills can be more difficult for trans people.  So.)

The term "Aspies" refers to people who have or appear to have Asperger's syndrome, which is  "characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially."  I have never been officially diagnosed (and I don't want to be) but I was definitely born without social skills.  However, I have managed to learn at least a little bit about social interaction.  Here are my tips:
  1. The first key to acquiring social skills is to want to interact with people, to believe that there is some benefit in it to you, and also to them.  If it is important enough to you, you will put some work into it.  And it does take work but it can be done. 
  2. Basic rules of etiquette are actually very easy to memorize and use.
  3. The purpose of etiquette and small talk is primarily to indicate that you are a) interested in talking to someone and b) able to behave more or less like a normal person.  The actual verbal "information" conveyed in conversation is less important than the act of conversation itself.  This is why, for example, the weather remains a perennial topic of conversation.  If you say, "Oh, it's raining again" or "What a nice day," you are not conveying any information that the other person doesn't already know.  You are giving them an opportunity to agree with you, which is pretty much the goal of most social communication.
  4. Social communication is very often not about saying what you really think.  This may seem like hypocrisy, but it is absolutely essential.  (Reading Jane Austen taught me this.)
  5. Aspies have a tendency to be very intense.  Most social interactions are meant to be casual and superficial - that means, the opposite of intense.  That's why it is helpful to back off, not to treat every conversation as an argument or a chance for you to do all the talking.  And if, like me, you're more likely not to talk at all - it still helps to take conversations less seriously, to cultivate the ritual of conversation, to treat it like a game.  Once you learn the rules, it really is quite predictable.
  6. People like to be given opportunities to talk about themselves. And it helps if you genuinely listen to what they say.  Remember, this is a good opportunity for you to collect information.
  7. When someone says, "Hello, how are you?" the correct response is, "I'm fine, how are you?"  If you know them well and they seem friendly, and you are not in fact "fine," you might expand your response to something like, "Things are pretty crazy today," but keep it short (two or three words) and try to finish up with "how are you?"  The goal is to give them a chance to say whatever they wanted to say when they approached you.  Or if they were greeting you in passing, the goal is to respond and let each of you go on about your business.
  8. Most of these rules are for casual interactions, with people you don't know very well.  I believe that it's also important to be polite to family members and closer friends.
  9. Eye contact.  This is a tough one for Aspies.  Personally, I find that I'm afraid of looking people in the face.  It seems to provide me with too much information.  I prefer focusing on people without looking at them directly.  (Do you find that it's easier to look at someone when both of you are smiling, in a good mood, having a pleasant conversation?)  In any case, it's important to remember to make eye contact - although people don't like fixed stares either.  Meet their eyes for a couple seconds and then look away.  Wait a few minutes and then repeat.
Advanced social skills:  manipulation.  Some people have an amazing ability to tell people what they want to hear, or to talk them into doing what they want them to do.  It seems to be something they're born with . . . one child of my acquaintance, when she wants to use a toy her brother is playing with, reminds him that "it's nice to share."  Get it?  For people like that, the sharing only goes one way.  In any case, manipulation is probably beyond the abilities of socially disabled people, but it is interesting to think about just how much can be done with social skills.  I recommend The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker, which includes a description of the techniques used by con artists to manipulate. (By the way, "con" was originally short for "confidence" - gaining someone's confidence is a key element of being able to manipulate them.)

Most of what I've written here is about creating a social persona.  I was also born without one of those (is that the same as being born without social skills?)  A social persona is a buffer between yourself and the world.  It protects you.  The only way I could think of to protect myself, when I was young, was not to attract attention at all, not to talk to people at all. But that doesn't really work too well.  The social persona is a much better shield.  (Although some people go overboard with it and forget that they are anything besides their social persona.  It's important to remember that there is always a real person underneath.)

One last thought:  it seems to be widely believed that children need to be taught how to read.  But they are not taught social skills in the same way -- not "officially" at school.  Ironically, like many Aspies I did in fact teach myself to read before starting school, but I couldn't teach myself social skills.  (If my parents were supposed to teach me -- well, they didn't.)  For us, being expected to understand social interactions is like being expected to know how to read without being taught would be for "ordinary" children.  I have to say that it's very frustrating.

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