However in settings such as AutAngels peer support groups and Autscape, which are wholly or predominantly autistic, you’ll see lots of people chatting away (as well as people standing awkwardly in corners). I've long puzzled over seeing autistic people who swear they hate small talk having conversations that sound to me like small talk in autistic settings.
Looking up small talk on the internet I find it defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions” and “an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed.” Wikipdedia's article on Small Talk explains that “In spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance. It serves many functions in helping to define the relationships between friends, colleagues, and new acquaintances.”
These definitions make clear in different ways that the content of small talk is not the point. The point is a desire to connect. For most autistic people however, the point of a conversation is the content. If the content is engaging they will connect, content leads to connection. It seems that for many NT’s (neurotypical or non-autistic people) connection comes before content, so they connect with contentless conversation and if that works they will move on to sharing meaningful content.
As well as establishing connection in contrasting ways it seems that the average NT probably wants more superficial connection with other humans than the average autistic person, and they signal the desire to connect by sharing inconsequential chatter.
Most of us autistics want language to be used to mean what it says not as a backdrop to an invisible social signal. So when NT’s use random thoughts to try connect with another person it can work well with fellow NT’s but tends to fail with autistics as we need meaningful content and can get stressed by a feeling that we are expected to share meaningless trivialities (added to which as we have no idea what is acceptable to say and what could trigger an adverse reaction, we feel that we’re being invited into a minefield). Before we speak we need to either be interested in the subject we are speaking about or the person we are talking to.
So while in an autistic setting (or any setting where they feel safe) many autistic people will ask after someone else’s family or discuss travel arrangements, because they are genuinely interested and connected. This can give the impression of being small talk, but in fact its meaningful because of the prior connection of the participants. The interaction does not create the connection, it happens because of it.
My contention is that NTs will talk about inconsequential matters to create connection while autistics will only do so when they already feel connected. Social skills courses which teach people that they should talk about the weather are teaching masking not connection.
If we repeat stock phrases because we've been taught that's what you're supposed to do it’s likely to feel unnatural, appear stilted and require lots of effort and energy leaving us feeling depleted and unable to actually listen and respond to the other person’s reply. Masking causes disconnection rather than connection so shouldn’t really be considered a social skill. (There is currently a social media campaign urging people to #Take the Mask Off).
Discovering that I am autistic led me to better understand what was going on socially for me and for others and enabled me to make choices based on this. I now find it much easier to engage in casual conversation because I’ve found a compromise, I do it my way, I don’t, as I used to, try and immediately dive into deep discussions, but I do connect by talking lightly about everyday matters that interest me but are unlikely to evoke deep feelings.