For me the single most helpful thing was going to Autscape where autistic people are in the majority. It was the first time I was in a situation with a level playing field socially. I am not the only one who has felt transformed by this experience. The confidence I gained at Autscape has enabled me to deal with a much wider variety of social situations and to build connections within the larger community. I found that understanding how and why I am atypical made it much easier to accept myself as I am and to address my various challenges. This understanding also enabled me to feel comfortable explaining my differences to others.
Interestingly the book I think best addresses difficulties talking with others was not written specifically for autistics. It is entitled “How you can talk to anyone in every situation” by Emma Sargent and Tim Fearon. Of course there are very few people, autistic or otherwise, who could achieve this – but this is as good a guide as I’ve seen in terms of helping people improve their ability to connect socially. The fact that is written for a general audience is a plus, as it doesn’t condescend or assume that there is an inherent deficit that needs addressing.
I think the point here is that the social differences and difficulties experienced by autistic people are not only about specific social skills, they are also about contextualising complex communications in real time. This is why a lot of autistic people with first class degrees in psychology are hopeless in social situations. Expecting theoretical training to enable people to perform socially is like expecting a male obstetrician to give birth.
Social skills training and social stories (which like ABA are touted everywhere as a brilliant thing for autism, without this being verified by rigorous research) assume that there will be a predictable context in which to use those skills. This is manifestly not the case. In real life the aim of social skill is to facilitate actual connection and connection requires more than one party. It makes sense if connection is not happening to look at both parties and try and find a compromise.
Exhibiting “social skills” without being honest or true to yourself is not relating to others or learning social skills, rather it is acting.
Social interaction by its nature requires more than one participant This brings me to the radical idea that maybe the non-autistic participants in social interaction with an autistic person should share responsibility for finding a way of relating that works. Non- autistic people often don’t have to think about their social style they just assume it is neutral, but as Gary Younge says in his book ‘Who we are – and should it matter in the 21st century?’ “Those who feel they are without identity do not see the need to meet people halfway and thereby fail to recognize that everyone else is doing all the travelling”.
Damian Milton calls this the “double empathy problem” . He suggests that the social difficulties of autistic people are caused by contrasting ways of relating rather than an autistic deficit. Whatever the complex mechanisms underlying social intelligence, I think we can safely say that this is something that needs to be further explored and that non- autistic people training autistic people to pretend to be non-autistic is unlikely to be the best solution we can come up with.
If you are autistic or think you might be and would like to explore this territory in more detail you might be interested in my “Exploring Being Autistic” programme which aims to help people accept themselves and communicate authentically.
I’ll finish with some lovely lines from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets that I think are relevant here.
“For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.”