The following set of instructions is targeted to autistic people and one sees this type of “helping” material also directed at Asperger “folks.”
My overall reaction is that this “program” is a set of scripts, which is the problem from the start. ASD people don’t communicate using scripts. Why? Because social scripts have no content. They are empty forms that describe and acknowledge who is higher on the social pyramid. I have no objection to deferring to elderly people or to people who have made contributions that are remarkable, such as a long life well lived.
I am interested in interesting people who can carry on a REAL conversation in which content is shared. I am polite; I am genuinely interested in who a person is, not what TV shows they watch. If they are the TV shows they watch, then I’m not likely interested. . Unfortunately, the following “advice” is so stilted, formulaic and robotic that Asperger individuals may feel insulted. We’re not broken – we’re people who want a lot more from conversation than what’s presented by neurotypicals. If autistic individuals find this strict social formula helpful, then good.
And now…how ASD people can join in the mind-numbing exercise of social chatter.
Why would anyone want to do this?
_____________How can I start a conversation?
If the person you would like to talk to is already talking to someone else, especially if it is someone you do not know, it may be better to speak to them later when they are free. Approach the person but stop when you are about an arm’s length away and face them.
Saying ‘Hello’ is normally a good way to start a conversation. Try to think of some other good greetings as well, eg ‘Hi’ to a friend or ‘Excuse me’ if you wish to attract someone’s attention. It is important to remember that the appropriate type of greeting changes depending on the situation and person you are speaking to (social rank); eg you may say ‘Hiya’ to a friend but ‘Hello’ to your boss.
Using the person’s name before or after your greeting will help them to know you are talking to them. In some families people do not address elder relatives by their name but call them Aunt, Uncle, Grandma as appropriate. Think about the names that you use when you speak to the people in your family.
If the person you speak to answers ‘Hello’ (or something similar) it usually means that they want to talk. (Really? Not really.)
It is a good idea to ask some general questions at the beginning of the conversation rather than starting on a certain topic. Some ideas of things to say here are:
- How are you?
- It’s nice to see you.
- Did you enjoy the film/concert/TV programme? (If you have watched one)
Try writing down some other general questions and topics that you can use when you are talking to other people. (Don’t forget to take a list with you, so you can read from it like a teleprompter).
What should I say during a conversation?
Remember to take it in turns when talking to someone. Let them answer your questions and give them a chance to ask you one in return if they want to. (Could this be any more awkward?)
Talk about things that you know the other person likes as well as the things that you like. If you both like the same things then you could talk about these. However, it is not appropriate to talk to some people about certain topics. It is probably a good idea to avoid talking about them if you do not know the person well. Try to make a list of things that are and are not appropriate to talk about. (Take the list with you: then you can read it to them so that they can tell what you’re allowed to say).
Examples of appropriate topics of conversation Wow! How exciting
- The weather
- Programmes that are on the television
Examples of inappropriate topics of conversation You can’t talk about anything interesting. You may as well talk to a stone pillar.
- Critical comments about a persons appearance (eg saying that you do not like their clothes)
- Money (eg asking someone how much money they earn)
OMG! If you find it hard to understand that someone else may feel differently to you, you may not realise that not everyone is as interested in a certain topic or activity as you are. You may want to talk about it a lot but the other person may not be as interested or knowledgeable about the subject as you are. If you are talking to someone about a topic and they begin to look like they want to end the conversation you could say ‘Would you like me to tell you more?’ or ‘Would you like to talk about something else?’. However, sometimes the person will want to end the conversation altogether for another reason. For example, they may need to get to work. You may also find it difficult to tell how someone else is feeling because they are not actually saying how they feel and you find it difficult to read body language and facial expressions. What is appropriate to say to them will sometimes be different depending on how they are feeling about the subject. If you are not sure how someone is feeling, you can ask them. Here is an example of a situation where this may be a good idea:
A friend tells you that they have to move house because they have a new job.
In this situation your friend may feel sad that they have to move away or excited because they have a new job. To make sure that you understand how they feel you could say ‘How does that make you feel?’ What genius!
Your friend may tell you that they are happy to be moving house because they are excited about the new job. However, you may feel sad because they will be moving far away from you. In this situation, instead of focusing on how you feel you could say, ‘I’m glad you are happy because you have a new job. I do feel sad though because you will be moving far away.’ This means you will be talking about their feelings as well as your own. This is called ’empathy’ and shows other people that you are a kind and caring person. You could discuss with your family member or carer other situations that may require you to show empathy. Can empathy be “faked”? I don’t think so; then it wouldn’t be empathy. It’ just a script.
Cambridge University Autism Research Centre has developed a CD-ROM programme called Mind Reading. It was developed to help people with an ASD to recognise the emotion that someone is feeling using their facial expression. The Mind Reading CD-ROM has been very successful and researchers at the University hope to be able to make a device that tells people with an ASD what emotion another person is feeling using a small camera and computer in the future. However, research into this is in the very early stages and so it will be a while before this is available.
Watch out for signals that someone wants to end a conversation with you. These may include:
- not asking questions back
- looking around the room
- saying they have something else to do
Do not get upset if a person does this. Sometimes it is better to end a conversation before you run out of things to say. If you want to end the conversation, say something like, “Well I’d better be going now” before saying “Goodbye” because it is more polite than just saying “Goodbye” and walking away. Try to think of some other ways to end a conversation.
Making friends can be difficult for people with an ASD but once you have established them they can be enjoyable. You will have someone to go out with, talk about things you enjoy and discuss your problems with.
It can be difficult to tell if someone is not a real friend. This can be especially difficult for people with an ASD. This is because the signs that someone is pretending to be your friend are often very difficult to detect because they include body language and tone of voice. You may not find it easy to notice these.
Marc Segar wrote about his experiences in a survival guide for people with an ASD to help improve their social skills. You can read it here. The section called ‘Finding the right friends’ may help you to discover whether someone is a real friend. The ideas below are based on some of Marc Segar’s:
A true friend
- Will always make you feel welcome and talk to you if they have the time.
- Will treat you the same way that they treat all of their friends.
Someone pretending to be a friend
- Will sometimes make you feel welcome but show signs that they do not want to talk almost immediately.
- May treat you differently to their other friends.
Telling people that you have an autism spectrum disorder
Sometimes people find others who behave differently to themselves hard to understand. People without an ASD may find it hard to understand why you may prefer not to look them in the eye whilst you speak or why you like to talk a lot about a special interest. A way of helping people to understand your differences and communicate well with you is to tell them that you have an ASD. Obviously, it is your choice whether or not to tell people but it can often be a positive decision.
You do not have to go into great detail about what an ASD is. Perhaps you could tell them about the triad of impairments and the difficulties that you have because of this. Things to think about include:
- Communication – Do you find body language difficult to understand? Do you find it hard to tell what emotion others are feeling? Do you find it difficult to say what you mean?
- Imagination – Do you find it difficult to imagine how someone else feels? Do you find it distressing when things change? Do you have a special interest?
- Social interaction – Do you prefer to be alone? Do you find it difficult to make friends? Do you find it difficult to keep a conversation going?
Not all of these difficulties will apply to you. You could ask someone who knows you well how you behave differently in social situations in comparison to someone who does not have an ASD. Knowing this can be very useful as you will then be able to tell people about these difficulties and also work on improving them.
Here are some additional ideas and things to remember to help you when dealing with social situations. This does not cover every possible situation you may find yourself in, but it does provide advice for some of the most common circumstances:
- Rules change depending on the situation and person you are speaking to. (Much of this is due to the social hierarchy, in which social class is of paramount importance. ASD people are de facto at the bottom of the pyramid, therefore ASD people are less important than other people.) For example, it would be appropriate to say ‘Hiya’ to a friend but ‘Hello’ to your boss. A good example of this is the story of a man who was told that it was polite to go up to people and smile and shake their hand when he met them. This was appropriate most of the time. However, when he attended a family member’s funeral people thought he was being insensitive because he was walking around with a big smile when they were feeling sad.
- If you make a mistake and upset someone it does not mean they do not like you. Usually, saying sorry helps. If you are not sure what you have done to upset someone, ask.
- Sometimes it is ok (TO LIE, in fact if you don’t you will be in trouble) not to tell the truth to make someone else happy (eg saying they do not look fat, even if they do). Some people call these ‘little white lies’. Try thinking of some situations where this may be the case with a family member or key worker.
- Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is appropriate in all situations. This shows other people that you are a polite person.
- Even if you do not want to socialise with other people and prefer to be on your own, it is a good idea to develop your social skills. In particular, the links below to advice about having a conversation may be useful. These will help you to act in an appropriate way when you are in a social situation that you cannot avoid, eg a family party. Again, this will show other people that you are a polite person.