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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