Invisible Strings vlog #3: why small talk is confusing (autism spectrum)

New video is now up! This time around, I discuss why small talk can be so confusing for those on the autism spectrum. Many people find small talk to be such a simple concept that it’s difficult for them to imagine why it would be an issue for anyone. So, to help break down the topic, I make 3 points that cover social processing issues, unwritten conversation rules and more. The video is below; click here to check out Invisible Strings on You Tube. Regular posts resuming next week!

Previous videos: being on the spectrum and making friends, and learning to balance social needs and comfort. Recent articles from the blog: Invisible Strings in Autism Parenting Magazine, an interview with the very awesome Janet Amorello; and me having fun with autism misinformation on Twitter.
Share this Article!Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on Google+

Leave A Comment!

  • Jess

    God, it’s so overwhelming to think about just how pervasive these challenges are. And, as you say, just how real the consequences are. My brain is reeling. But I love hearing your voice, so there’s that. ;)

    • m kelter

      speaking of consequences, i forgot to mention that i was fired from my first job (stocking shelves at toys r us) because i kept telling the bosses better ways to do their job, thinking i was being extremely helpful. eventually they fired me for “insubordination”. i was sort of half angry, half laughing at the time…i kept thinking, “well, this is not a great start to my employment life.”

  • Gretchen Leary

    Agreed on all points. It’s all so complex

    • m kelter

      Thx Gretchen. And yes, complicated is definitely the word. It makes my brain sleepy. So sleepy.

  • Drena (@vadess40)

    Agreed with all your points. Often times I’m the most quiet person during a casual conversation, especially in a group, because I have no clue what to say because I’m still processing what’s been said. Although I’ve improved a bit over the years, it still is hard at times.

    • m kelter

      you made a great point about group interactions…i focused on one-one-one discussions, but when it comes to group conversations, it just makes these issues so much worse, thx for mentioning that.

  • Kathy @kathyhporter

    I think one of the most frustrating aspects of “delayed processing” is explaining/describing what that’s like to supposed normal people – my 27 year old son has Asperger’s and in his last job had to sort through the challenges of auditory delays while simultaneously educating his supervisors about it. (Your video should be required watching for employers!)

    • m kelter

      I agree, explaining these issues to others can be very frustrating. So many of these difficulties, like processing small talk, is something most never have to think about, so it’s very easy for them to dismiss these struggles or apply unfair judgements, all because they lack the information necessary to realize what’s actually happening. and the consequences can be very serious…if you struggle with things others find to be easy, you can have challenges with relationships, employment, and so on.

      Thx for the comment Kathy…best wishes to your son as he navigates the job world, I know it’s a challenge…and yet it’s so great that he is striving to educate his employers about these issues; those on the spectrum who come after him may very well have an easier time thanks to his efforts.

  • Ben Belek

    Really good video. I love how well you manage to break down the elements of conversation and tease out what exactly makes conversation – or specifically small-talk in this case – so challenging or uncomfortable for some people.

    Your video actually reminded me of something I find quite challenging, and I thought maybe you can offer me some insights. Here’s the thing: I meet with autistic people regularly. Now, I know many of them struggle with small-talk (or just plainly dislike it). That’s absolutely fair, I respect that, I understand why that is (slightly better now thanks to you), and I have absolutely no objection to refraining from it altogether. Problem is – I genuinely don’t know how. How do you start a conversation with someone without using small talk? Unless it’s someone I’m already close with, I don’t feel like I can just come out and ask anything too personal or direct. I can’t just ask a random question. I sometimes find myself just sitting next to a person and trying hard to think of something to say to them that isn’t small-talk. And more often than not, I just can’t think of anything to say (well, I get ideas, but I rule them out for being too direct, too personal, too specific, or too small-talk-ish).

    I know this is sort of silly, but if you have any thoughts on this, so hey, I’ll be very happy to hear them!

    • m kelter

      I don’t think it’s a silly question at all…I know I’m averse to small talk, so asking, “what’s the alternative?” is perfectly reasonable. I’ll add some thoughts here, but with your permission, I’d like to take the question and turn it into a post…that way, others may be inclined to provide their answers as well.

      I don’t know that I have a great answer…and I suspect that the answer would be different for each person on the spectrum, so that only adds to the challenge. Having said that, I can think of 2 points: it maybe awkward at first, but once you’ve spent enough time with someone, you may be able to pick up on their preferred style of communicating…what this might mean is, at first, silence is okay. You mentioned trying hard to think of something to say, not finding anything: that’s actually okay for some people. Silence is more comfortable for me than the minefield of small talk. So instead of feeling pressured to think of discussion points…just wait back, let them lead the way, communication wise. The second point, which follows from the first: if you’re meeting with someone on the spectrum and you don’t know them that well: just straight up ask about their preference. Just say, “I know some people dislike small talk…let me know if I should avoid it, or not.” Nothing wrong with asking, and giving them a chance to establish parameters…I know, for me, there is a lot of ambiguity and confusion surrounding conversations…I always appreciate chances to clear the air, overtly lay down ground rules, just takes away a lot of the confusion.

      So, ask…and failling that, just know for many folks, silence is a comfortable thing. I know this doesn’t really answer WHAT to say, but maybe it can help get a feel for how to proceed, establish sime parameters. Maybe I’ll ask around, see what others think…again, I would guess that it’s a little different for others, so I appreciate the question, it’s a great way to think about these issues.

  • waggermama

    I think my mum put it well. She sat tis it can be hard to build a rapport. I think the processing delay explains that lack of rapport, I often have it with even close friends, if they don’t make explicit statements about ideas or plans.

    • m kelter

      Your mum did put it well, that rapport is really how people lay the groundwork for their connections, and it can be so difficult to build with the processing issues. Thx for the comment.

  • MsMol

    Thanks, M. My 15 year old son and I enjoyed this video, as well as your other ones. He fully concurs with you on the subject. Over the past couple of years I have heard him express his dislike of “people bothering him” when he would be sitting off to the side by himself in a place there are other kids…I recall comments about them trying to talk about “random nonsense”, :D It was confusing to me, because there are also times that I see him engaging in what appears to be some sort of small talk, off to the side after a class…and seeming to be enjoying it to some degree. Having read several of your posts, it now makes more sense to me. I think the key for him is something you said in the follow-up Q&A post to this one: “The key is openness…being able to converse in a comfortable manner without having to worry about the social structure involved…the unwritten rules.” The times I have seen him smiling or looking like he was enjoying the (usually minimal) conversation, was always with a person who was relaxed and didn’t seem to be uncomfortable with the way the exchange was going. They were just going with the flow, allowing my son to speak as he was comfortable, but not being put off by his long pauses or short answers. This in turn, probably helped my son to relax slightly, maybe put his normal “social/people guard” down a little…enough to talk, and even smile a little more. Of course, these conversations were also always something he would consider somewhat interesting; they weren’t the normal “random nonsense” topics of weather and sports.
    We’ve talked about how often times small talk is a way NT people deal with their discomfort in what they feel is an awkward situation. Seeing someone sitting off to the side by themselves, they are wanting to make sure that person isn’t feeling awkward and left out, So they come over and try to find out what’s up and attempt small talk; their intent is good, but their approach is not well received, and they probably leave feeling a little rejected or confused. I don’t know if I am off on this, but I advise my son to just be himself, but offer a little more communication. I’ve suggested that after a couple of their “small talk” questions (and his one word answers), he might say something like, ” I don’t mean to seem unfriendly…it’s just that I really don’t do small talk very well. You can keep asking me questions if you want, but don’t be offended if I continue to just answer them like I have been. But I appreciate your caring if I’m okay…Thanks. (SMILE)” And if he feels like engaging, he could add, “Now if you want to talk about physics (his number one area of interest)….I’ll have a lot longer answers. Go ahead, ask me anything…” He is such a fun, unique person and I think the best chance for people to know that is if he is just himself. Yet to avoid the inevitable misinterpretation, he must clearly let the other party know he recognizes their good intentions and likewise clarify no ill will on his part. So saying essentially, this is how I am, this is how I work, and here is how we can maybe operate together…I think that is his best chance at connecting with people on a real level, without offending them. Granted, the various “crowds” he frequents are usually supportive ones, where other kids are looking to include, not exclude people…so that’s helpful.

  • gottateach4

    I had no idea small talk was used for transition. I’ll have to try to listen for that. You have helped to clarify why small talk is so challenging. I know too, that for me, I can rarely see the point in discussing something unimportant when that time could be put to use discussing something that matters. I’ll be paying more attention next time someone engages me in small talk.


  • Chris – the Social Maze

    Really good analysis about how and why small talk is difficult for aspie’s – I doubt if many neuro-typicals could come up with that!

    This goes to show that whenever someone begins to struggle socially, you need to identify this and have the right help in place. When aspies remain undiagnosed (or even when they are diagnosed but not given the appropriate help) what can start off as a significant but manageable problem can compound itself.

    Aspie doesn’t get small talk, so gets rejected, starts feeling worse, loses confidences, then withdraws, then fails to develop his social skills while his peers do, leads to more loss of confidence, more rejection, or maybe just giving up.

    I feel this what happened to me in my school days.

    To counter this you need to basically understand social dynamics thoroughly, break down what good social skills are, then teach them to people with asperger’s.