Two questions this time around. One from a parent…and one from a lady diagnosed with Aspergers who wants to know how anyone could feel good about life on the spectrum.
Thoughtful questions. My non-expert, answery type things: in effect.
Q: What kind of social skills do you wish you had been explicitly taught? I hear criticism from adult autistics about social thinking that focuses too much on normalization (e.g., overemphasis on eye contact or not making people think you’re “weird”) but I also know that there are some basic skills that would help my son better navigate his world. What social skills or concepts were helpful or would have been helpful for you to have learned earlier?
A: Before answering this directly, let me step back and look at the big picture.
You are very right that the idea of social skills training can, for some, be very uncomfortable. There are many adult autistics who have had bad (including traumatic) experiences with behavioral modification, so this can definitely be a thorny issue.
Because of this tension, discussions about social skills training often lapse into a binary either/or dynamic. It’s described as either helpful or destructive, the end. Once that framework is in place, it’s tough to really sound out any nuances with the topic (which is understandable, given some of the bad history there).
So it helps to set the binary thinking aside, at least for the sake of discussion.
Instead of asking, “Is social skills training good or bad?” alternate questions might look something like this:
“Is the goal of the training to normalize (for the sake of others) or empower (for the sake of the autistic)?”
“Who is defining the goals? The autistic or someone else (parents, teachers, etc.)?”
“Is the process humane and respectful?”
Too often training of this sort is implemented in an effort to conceal autistic differences, and it can create a situation where a person is made to feel “damaged”, “less than”. It’s really training put into place for the sake of others…people who want to see the autistic blend in more, resemble their peers. Even if it’s framed as “helping”, it can be a toxic approach that just torpedoes a person’s sense of self-worth.
For social skills training to work and be a beneficial process, it has to be oriented towards the person on the spectrum…who they are, what they want, and it has to be a good fit for their unique needs and personality.
To bring this back to your question, what kind of social skills training do I wish I had been taught?
I definitely know what didn’t work for me.
As a teen, I tried to teach myself body language. I was struggling socially, lonely…I wanted to fit in. And I knew at a pretty early age that I had issues with non-verbal communication, even though there was not a diagnosis at that time. So, what I did was watch people…memorize body language patterns…and try to mimic them. I tried to learn postures, arm movements, counting-routines for eye contact and so on. I tried to hide anything about myself that might be perceived as “different”…sensory issues, language differences, challenges with social pragmatics. I wanted to sweep all of that under the rug and hide behind this marionette of a self that I was building.
And it was a disaster. Body language just does not come naturally to me. Eye contact does not come naturally to me. The things about me that are different are just part of who I am. Trying to hide them was emotionally destructive and completely wrecked my ability to feel like a whole, complete person.
Also, it was just flat out exhausting. Even in situations where I successfully used social skills…it felt like navigating an obstacle course, every single time. Something as simple as small talk would require a huge amount of concentration and mental work to navigate…and at the end of it, I would feel mentally fatigued, beaten down. Using a range of social skills often left me feeling more alienated from other people, not less.
I know that trying to blend never worked for me. So, to answer your question, I wish I had known as a teenager what I was taught at a later time in my life: own your differences.
If you can do that…if you can clearly map out traits that are just part of who you are, and embrace them…it then becomes a whole lot easier to formulate social goals and establish which therapeutic supports will be beneficial…if, in fact, they are even necessary.
In my case, they were necessary.
For a few years, I worked with a psychologist on learning how to navigate social interactions…and the only question the psychologist had was, “What do you want?” She had me spell out what specifically I had in mind, in terms of goals and needs…and then we worked on learning a small number of skills that I could use, but infrequently and only as needed.
It wasn’t about changing; it was about putting a few extra tools in the social tool box, all while making sure that I was being true to myself.
So, mimicry was something that did not work. I don’t think a big, comprehensive training system would have been helpful. What did work was practicing social skills in a very limited way, within the context of well-defined parameters that I…and I alone…established, and that were aimed at achieving personal goals, not blending in or running the conformity obstacle course. These are some of the things I wish I’d known a little earlier.
Good luck to your son as he begins to think about these issues. The fact that you are on his side, trying to find the right way forward, that is awesome, I know it will be a huge help to him.
Q: I’m a mid-30s woman with diagnosed Asperger Syndrome. It really hurts when people say that Aspergers is something to celebrate, that it has “positives”. Why am I encouraged to celebrate what causes endless suffering for me? As a female, it took a very long time to get a diagnosis. In the meanwhile, I put tremendous effort into understanding and being as NT-like as possible [from the management: NT = neurotypical, “normal”]. Yes, the NT life is a drain, but you do what is necessary to survive; otherwise I’d be living with my parents forever and drain them dry. Does that sound like something to celebrate?
Instead of telling you why you should be more positive about life on the spectrum, what I’ll try to do is explain why others are positive. My goal here is not to change your mind, but to hopefully make it easier to understand why others choose to discuss the spectrum using words and ideas that are apparently more upbeat than you are comfortable with.
I would say there are three primary reasons some people choose to be positive about life on the spectrum.
1. Because they genuinely feel that way. They like their differences, they may feel that most people are trapped in conventional lives, and their spectrum traits have just given them a perspective on the world that is more vibrant and fulfilling. Even when there are challenges, tough days, for many this is still preferable to life as a neurotypical.
2. You know as well as anyone: the world is a really hard place for people with differences. It pressures unconventional people to feel ashamed about who they are, to feel abnormal. In reaction to this, some people celebrate autistic differences because they choose to be defiant. They don’t like feeling pressured, judged. They don’t like having their entire sense of self defined by others. Defiance ensues.
This can be true for folks on the spectrum, and it’s especially true for parents of autistic kids. They know the world is going to be a harder place for their loved one…so they put a huge amount of effort into supporting their child, into making sure that they feel loved and strong and competent.
If nothing else here clicks for you, please know: a lot of positive people are fully aware of the difficult stuff. But they choose to focus on the good in an effort to buffer their loved ones from the toxic reactions of a petty and judgmental world.
Personally, I think that’s awesome. I see a lot of strength in that. I see love in that.
3. This final one is my personal reason for trying to stay positive: survival.
Again, people who sound happy are not necessarily blind to what’s going on. I’m not unaware of how challenging the most stressful days can be, both for myself and others.
I just know I can’t dwell on the negative because the negative almost killed me. It reached an extreme where continuing to operate under its influence would mean cutting short the pain it was bringing to my life. For me, the negative is rooted in depression. I have to stay as far away from that as I can get.
The person asking this question is very genuinely describing her experiences and asking how some of us can reach different conclusions. Perfectly valid question, so what I’m about to say is not aimed at her. But I do run into a lot of other people online who seem to enjoy taking shots at those of us who try to offer constructive views about life on the spectrum. Some seem to relish their ability to wallow in misery and belittle descriptions that are not as bleak and hopeless as theirs.
All I can do is yawn about it. At this point in my life, I’m not able to view negativity as “brave” or “honest”. I just see it as a luxury not everyone can afford.
Back to the questioner: my only hope is that, when you hear assessments you may not agree with, you can at least understand that those people are grappling with the same sets of issues; they’re just formulating their responses a different way. They’re happy…or defiant…or surviving; they’re on different paths, whichever one is the best fit for their life.
Not that I want to change your mind. How you relate to and describe your Aspergers is obviously your choice. I just hope you can find a way to like who you are and feel at peace with your differences. I’m sorry things have been so painful for you.