One thing that autistic people have in common is a social difference (of course we humans are all different in that we are each unique, what I mean here is that autistic people interact with others atypically). I think this is because autistics are unable to pick up non-verbal and other communication that is below the level of consciousness. Like much to do with autism, the cause of this social difference (which everyone across the contentious field of autism agrees exists) is not clear. While I believe that the lack of social radar equipment to detect social signals is one of the main reasons for social atypicality there are other factors that also contribute to varying degrees.
It is clear to me that issues with “theory of mind” (the very non-literal term used for the intuitive awareness that the contents or other people’s minds are different from the contents of our own mind) and what psychologists tend to call mentalising can impact severely on the ability to relate successfully to other human beings.
Autistic people are often distressed by problems mixing with others and making friends and therefore jump at the chance to learn social skills which they hope will solve these problems. Despite the popularity of social skills training the limited research that exists suggests that such training is not very effective in real life* . I find this totally unsurprising. Nobody has suggested giving deaf people hearing training or blind people sight training. As social skills require an ability to pick up social signals that is absent in autistic people, training is unlikely to be effective because, despite high motivation, the social radar equipment is just not there.
What I suspect happens is that the social skills sessions themselves are successful in that the people attending get to have a nice time which includes limited socialising with each other. They learn what to do in specific scenarios, they learn the steps to go through, and they have enjoyed it so they give the training good feedback. Everybody is happy, outcome measures get nice ticks but nothing changes in the outside world, the lessons that seemed so relevant in class turn out to be irrelevant in the real world because the real world does not use the same scripts that were taught in class.
I regard this lack of “social radar” as being somewhat analogous to tone deafness in music (I am tone deaf). I used to love singing, but unfortunately I was exposed in front of the class at age 7 as the one who was singing incorrectly and since then I have been unable to sing in public. What is particularly humiliating about this was that I was doing my best and as far as I am concerned I was singing in tune, but everyone else could hear that in fact I wasn’t. Most autistics have had the experience with trying to engage socially, trying to get along with people, doing what we believe to be the right thing, but discovering that others think we are doing something wrong. We tend to get rejected without ever finding out what exactly we did wrong (or we realise ourselves a week later when the time to rectify it has passed). We are just not able to “tune in” in real time to the social context we find ourselves in.
The underlying issue is that the point of interacting socially is to connect with other people, and you don’t do this merely by exhibiting a set of skills, you do this by being your authentic self and being open to another human being. Too many autistic people have been taught supposed “skills” which leave them in the words of Lianne Holiday Wiley “Pretending to be Normal”. As Valerie Gaus points out in her book “Living Well on the Spectrum” appearing “normal” does not make a person likeable and being “weird” does not necessarily make a person unlikeable. Learning a set of rules might be necessary but it is certainly not sufficient to enable you to connect in real time with real people.
*See for example http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02179376