Q and A Tuesday: the autism spectrum and alternatives to small talk

In a recent video, I discussed small talk and why it can be so confusing for people on the autism spectrum. There are a lot of processing issues involved, as well as a minefield of social consequences (you can click here for the full discussion). So, even though it is a seemingly simple exchange for most people, small talk can actually become a serious barrier for folks on the spectrum.

One commenter had a question relating to this topic; I thought I would share that here, along with my response.

Q: Your video actually reminded me of something I find quite challenging, and I thought maybe you can offer 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…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.

A: I suspect that the answer would be different for each person on the spectrum, so it’s a challenging question to answer in a definitive way. However, I think it’s a great question, so I’ll try to make a few points and hope that they can be useful to some degree.

First: sometimes silence is okay. Once you’ve spent enough time with someone, you may be able to pick up on their preferred style of communicating…but until that happens, some people may prefer silence. You mentioned trying to think of something to say, not finding anything: maybe that’s okay. 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 in terms of the discussion.

The second point, and this is probably more important: if you’re meeting with someone on the spectrum and you don’t know them that well: just ask for their preference. Don’t hesitate to 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 having a chance to clear the air, overtly lay down ground rules; it just takes away a lot of the uncertainty.

And just to clarify: you stated,  “I don’t feel like I can just come out and ask anything too personal.” I don’t think the only alternative to small talk is conversing about deeply personal issues. The barriers that small talk generate have less to do with the topics and more to do with the unwritten rules that go along with them (that is, the structure, the give-and-take, the rhythm and so on). This means that any number of topics can remain on the table, even seemingly minor topics.

To put this another way: it’s not an either/or scenario, where people can either small talk or launch into deeply personal issues. The key is openness…being able to converse in a comfortable manner without having to worry about the social structure involved…the unwritten rules. As I mention in the video, people can experience serious consequences for breaking the unwritten rules of conversation (consequences like loneliness, relationship issues, unemployment, etc.). Anxiety surrounding small talk is often related to a fear of these consequences (as well as a fear of the huge burden involved with processing all of that social data, as described in the video).

I prefer more direct conversation…it can still be about mild topics, but any time I can discard the structure of small talk and just speak directly…or listen to someone who is speaking directly about what is on their mind…it is infinitely more comfortable than the structured, coded give-and-take of small talk.

Again, people on the spectrum can be very different from one another. Others may have a different set of issues with small talk, but I think the general points about silence, asking for preferences and consequences are worth putting out there. Thanks for the question.

Find more discussions on the Invisible Strings Twitter and Facebook page. And check out these previous Q and A posts: sensory issues in school settings, body language deficits and adult ASD diagnoses.
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  • April T

    I would go on to add this point–that for some of us, it’s not necessarily the small talk itself; it’s the inauthenticity of feeling behoven to the spoken word as a way to hold up a connection. One of my Aspie traits is that I despise inauthenticity. I can do small talk to a degree, but it has to be relevant small talk. Don’t just start with “how’s that rain, eh? Crazy stuff!” If you want to talk weather, start with something closer to “Days like this make me feel more tired than usual. Does the rain affect you in any way?” It’s so much more AUTHENTIC and organic in it’s beginnings; you have already shared something personal about yourself (rain makes you tired) and you have connected by being interested in whether or not it affects the person being spoken to.

    Another area is assuming gender stereotyped small talk and I think M. makes awesome satirical jabs at this common folly–if you are speaking with a boy, don’t just ask if he likes sports, or trucks, or video games, or what not. “How’s them Saints for you? What a game last Monday, eh?” Need I break this down into how uncomfortable it feels to be boxed in from the start. (Well, I guess he, too, assumes I am just supposed to like sports like everybody else and that, like everyone else, I spent my Monday watching the game instead of putting together a 1500 piece puzzle of a dragon in a book I read. Already I am an unchecked box to normal in his book, here, too). If you want to ask about something sports related, maybe start with “I’m a big fan of the Saints. Grew up in Saints country so we watch it a lot. You into the Saints?” It’s specific and it’s authentic because the asker is OWNING that it’s a personal preference not an assumed criterion to belongingness. It’s the same with girls. Don’t assume what they like and don’t like: “So you read those Twilight books? Team Jacob or Team Edward?” Maybe something more like “I can’t say I am much of a reader, but I do like a good mystery movie now and then. Do you read or prefer movies?” Again, it’s prefaced with something personal and ended with a non-assuming, non-loaded question.

    Some of the worst offenders are the super shallow speak surfers. They have made an art of networking rather than connecting. These people go around a room saying “hello,” to everyone, asking cheerily about each person’s parents/siblings/job, then asking inauthentic loaded questions about weather, politics, local news; these are the baby kissers and the biggest proponents of name-dropping. Other than “I think your Fluffy here is sooo cute with her pink collar!” you have learned nothing personal from these people thus what occurred is someone showing off rather than creating a symbiotic interaction with another human being. Those are the MOST painful interactions to make because nothing of their networking feels genuine. People, don’t be this guy/girl. Just don’t. I have no way to fix this person except to say, well “they suck” and for the love of holy hecklebeans, DON’T DO IT!

    As for the silence issue–when I first met my husband, he had the hardest time understanding that the biggest honor was that I was comfortable enough to be SILENT with him. I didn’t feel the need to fill the void with mindless chatter so that we kept a tenuous connection streaming between us. I felt that the connection was genuine, valid, authentic, and so I didn’t need to keep pulling on the thread to make sure it was still there. I had built enough confidence in my comfort levels with him to trust that the thread was, indeed, present. I have since learned that this is much more Aspie than Neurotypical so some words of advice about silence: 1.) Turn off your anxiety to please and turn on your empathy–how does the environment FEEL? The speaker should look at the person they are working with for clues to the person’s comfort level. If you aren’t sure, then ASK. 2.) Don’t give off clueless vibes! I know they say that someone with autism doesn’t have empathy or sucks at using it. This is a lie. Auties have empathy, some just use it differently or don’t have the words to define what they feel and to connect with their actions. We can FEEL when someone is uncomfortable with us. Take a few deep breaths and open yourself up. Relax your shoulders. Allow your mind to wander a bit. Take the shutters off of your eyes. Allow yourself to radiate warmth. 3.) Create comfort by creating genuine connections. No games. If the speaker is a therapist, mind what you ask. We might not know the RIGHT answer, but most of us know when we are being baited for SPECIFIC answers. Can you say anxiety builders? Trust breakers? Utilize the respect of competent understanding. We have learned enough from our autie populations across the board to say that we can assume competence even in those who can’t speak. It’s wrong to assume either giftedness or total incompetence. Assume, instead that the person is on a level that they can get laymen terms and branch from there. What you expect of a person will lead their interactions. If someone feels dismissed already because they are 16, non-verbal, being spoken to with the assumption the person is on the two year old cognitive level, well…there goes a shot at genuine connection. It’s okay to be ADAPTIVE in the way that language is used with someone on the spectrum. Some of us suck at hearing verbose questions and directions. But simplifying and dumbing down are two different things.

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      Thanks April! You made so many great points, I was hoping some other spectrum folks would add their insights, since these things are very subtle, complex. The gender stereotyping is definitely a problem…and it’s another area where there can be serious consequences for breaking the “unwritten rules”. As an introverted reader with no interest in sports…who grew up in a small rural area where football was an obsession…let’s just say it was not always a fun time. And i definitely agree with your points about silence and authenticity…I think authenticity is most comfortable because it means the absence of those unwritten rules that can be so challenging. Anyway, thx again April, hope you are doing well.

  • http://autisticook.wordpress.com autisticook

    Funny that you put the emphasis on the “ask anything too personal” part of the neurotypical person’s discomfort. I find that the “too direct” part is just as important. I would advise neurotypical people who find it hard to start a conversation without small talk to just try directness. It ties in a bit with April’s authenticity, but you don’t need to immediately disclose everything that you think. Just be direct. If someone comes up to me and says “I have no idea what to say to you, because I’ve heard you don’t like small talk”, to me that’s actually a far better opening for starting a conversation. I could say, “I don’t know what to say either!” and voila, we have established a bond based on directness and honesty, without immediately getting into personal topics!

    Same with talking about the weather. I don’t mind weather talk (in fact, I once had a great conversation with someone that started out as commenting on the rain, and went into the science of atmospheric pressure and historical data about precipitation within minutes!). But when it’s direct, it’s so much easier to know what to say in reply. Like someone who says to me, “I love the sunshine we’ve been getting! Do you like sunshine?” That gives me far more valuable information than just “How about this sun, eh!”, because then I get all worried that if I say I like it, you might have meant that it’s bad for your garden or something.

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      i definitely think “directness” is the way to go…mainly because it discards the “unwritten rules” of conversation, which for me at least, are what can be so confusing. directness can be tricky, but it can also clear away some of the minefields of small talk.

      “I don’t mind weather talk”…for me, this is basically what I was hoping to express when I mentioned that the alternative to small talk is not necessarily personal information. when i’m talking with someone i know well, am comfortable with…i say all sorts of stuff that is frivolous, minor…”big talk” is not the only alternative to “small talk”…small talk is often problematic more because of it’s structure and the “rules” behind it than any particular topic. so, as you say, conversations about weather can be fine, as long as there is a sense of directness and clarity. thx for these points, they help!

  • http://www.autism-mom.com Elizabeth

    I love this: “Don’t hesitate to 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.”

    It is just perfect. Thank you!

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      Thx Elizabeth!

  • emmapretzel

    Yeah, the points April and autisticook made about being direct/authentic are like, worth their weight in gold. My least favorite kind of small-talk happens when a stranger (usually in some kind of waiting area or transit stop) wants to make idle conversation, but doesn’t want a real conversation, so they proceed to just ask me small-talk questions over and over, at a rate of like, one question per every 1.5 to 2 minutes. Usually I’m reading or trying to focus on something else, so I’ll give only monosyllabic answers. And they always wait juuuuuust long enough after I answer that I think they’ve given up. And at the exact second I settle in to focus again: “So, uh. You from around here?” It’s like the small-talk version of Chinese water torture.

    I’m trying to think of things I would add…Got one: Even when I’m definitely up for conversation, I often really have a hard time spontaneously coming up with questions to ask the other person, especially if the conversation isn’t about knowledge/interests, or if it isn’t in a very structured context. This is mostly because I just don’t have any implicit understanding of what kinds of questions would or wouldn’t be appropriate or engaging. My impulse is to just quiz all interesting strangers about their date of birth, their phenomenological experience of the reading process, whether or not they know things about proteins/postcolonial theory/language ecology, and so on (forever). So it’s often really nice to have conversations with people who, in addition to being respectful of my boundaries/genuine, are comfortable taking the lead in the conversation and won’t just assume that I’m boring or don’t want to talk because I don’t spontaneously ask lots of questions about them in return. I get better at the question-asking the deeper into the conversation I get, but at first it can be really hard because I just don’t have the skills/fluency necessary to indicate that I’m interested in learning about the other person and talking more.

    Also, I am a huge fan of people who are able to have good conversation without needing all the little physical/perceptual/spatial conventions of “engaged talking,” like needing us to sit facing each other, needing/looking for eye contact, not being comfortable with me multi-tasking, or with silence, etc. I do best in conversations where all those parameters are flexible and/or more indirect than is normally socially acceptable.

    • http://theinvisiblestrings.com m kelter

      Thanks for adding these points, its very helpful. The “physical/perceptual/spatial conventions” are definitely an issue…and like other small talk structures, one where there are consequences for breaking the rules. The eye contact factor that you mention, for example, is a convention where people can find you to be strange if you’re looking away, or looking too much, so it’s a great point.