STRATEGIES FOR SOCIAL INTERACTION
Being on the autism spectrum means that any
social skills you want to learn have to be learned manually rather
than developing them naturally. You may find however that some of
these social skills aren't particularly constructive and in this
case it is possible to learn better social skills than non-autistic
people have available to them. Particularly when socializing with
other people on the autism spectrum.
Questions are the things that enable autism spectrum people to survive in this world. Knowing how to find the
information you need and weed out the stuff you don't is likely
to be one of your best survival skills. It is necessary to understand
that you as an autism spectrum person are very probably unique
as a person, with your own goals, features, flaws, needs and perceptions
of life. You are probably the one who is most willing and able to
find out what you need to know to achieve something.
Types of questions
Personal questions are ones that ask a person
to reveal something about themselves, or their "subjective"
opinion about something. No particular answer is correct, and not
answering is also an option.
Leading questions are questions asked in such
a way as to lead a person to answer a particular way. These are
often, but not always forms of manipulation.
Rhetorical questions are ones designed to get
people to think about the answer rather than to answer them directly.
Queries are requests for "objective"
or "definitive" information. The answers you get to these
questions are rarely objective or definitive. The best way to deal
with this is to query again for more specific answers. This method
is not unlike dealing with Google.
Open questions are used in conversation and allow
the person being asked to talk for as much as they want for a reply.
Closed questions are used in conversation and
which require short clarifying answers. These are often good "listening
Getting useful information from people
If the person you're seeking information from
has bad experiences answering your questions then they may avoid
If the person you ask questions of puts effort
into their answers and then sees that you aren't using the information,
they may also avoid answering questions.
Questions usually have assumptions, and if they
don't, then they often SEEM to have assumptions. These assumptions
are statements that can often be more offensive than when they are
Example of a question with an assumption: "Why
is X stupid?" assumes that X is stupid and rules out an answer
that may explain X.
Example of a question that seems to have one:
"How do you talk to people?" is too broad a question,
probably leading to the assumption that it's a personal question.
That is, "how do YOU talk to people?"
The best questions are almost certainly the ones
that assume nothing but that the answers to former questions are
Starting a "questioning session" with
the assumption that the former rule is correct leaves us no option
but to ask a question with no assumptions. Examples of such a question:
"Is it fair to say that ... (any given statement)?"
NEVER ask a question that you aren't prepared
for an honest answer to, and if you aren't prepared for the answer
you get, never over-react.
Bear in mind that "knowledge is power"
and asking certain questions may reveal gaps in your knowledge that
other people can exploit.
I find it's usually easier to find the information
I seek by staying focused on acquiring it in a form I understand.
This is an art in itself.
It is usually OK to ask one or two questions you
already know the answer to to test the persons answering abilities,
but doing so to "show them up" is probably a bad idea.
tips for Conversations
The conversation between people who want to meet
each other for the first time on agreeable terms usually follows
a particular protocol.
Such a conversation usually starts with greetings
and small talk, during which both parties thresh out each others
disposition regarding certain things such as:
• How willing the person is to talk with the other
• What kind of threats the person could represent
• The persons place in any relevant pecking order
• What kind of mood the person is in
• What kind of person they are generally
• What the persons pet areas of interests might be (yes, non-autistic
people have them too!)
• How much of the information that was gleaned from any previous
encounters still applies.
The interaction takes the form of questions and statements designed
to elicit responses from, while not offending or embarrassing the
other person. Or rather, avoiding the consequences of doing so.
If someone asks how you are, they really are not
wanting to know the true or literal answer. This is a way of judging
another person's outlook. A short answer is always best, and if
you're trying to make a good impression, an answer that indicates
a positive and confident mood such as "well", "doing
great", or just "good" is best. It may be acceptable
or appropriate sometimes to give a short one sentence answer that
communicates a "status report" in something you were talking
to the person about before. In all cases, remember to follow up
with a similar greeting if you haven't already.
The key thing to look for in responses is whether
the person has positive or negative reactions during introductions
or when a subject has been brought up.
People with negative outlooks and body language
are usually avoided, and may in fact be trying to be avoided. People
with unconfident or inconsistent body language are also often avoided.
Based on each persons responses and body language,
the conversation then gravitates back and forth between areas of
common interest and small talk.
Any time during the conversation, participants
may switch to another topic, switch back to small talk, or use a
distraction to pull out of the conversation.
It is considered acceptable to tell white lies
to end a conversation when no other distractions are available,
but not ones that are obvious.
Failure to respond can lead to people being scared
Responding inappropriately can lead to being misjudged.
Reading responses incorrectly can lead to misjudging
It is much more important for the person starting
the conversation to follow the protocols closely than for the other
It is best to stay away from negative and contentious
things unless the other person displays an interest in debating
It is important for both to try to develop an
understanding of what the other person is thinking and feeling while
talking. This is rapport.
It is worth noting that autism spectrum people
often end up in almost religious conflicts with each other due to
failing to understand each others disposition. Small talk is actually
quite a neat and useful trick.
Rapport and Friendship
Rapport is not something you have when you "get"
someone or consistently understand their behavior, or when you think
the other person gets you. Your mirror neurons are capable of misguiding
Friends share rapport, but rapport is not about
One definition of rapport is "a feeling of
mutual understanding or trust and agreement between people".
Rapport may be when both people "get" each other or share
a sense of "connection".
Rapport between two people develops over time
as they gradually learn more about each other and develop trust
and appreciation for each others worth. This is particularly true
During a conversation, people will often take
turns to trade personal information in the hopes of learning more
about each other and developing some rapport.
One person may elicit information from another
either by asking direct questions or by disclosing personal information
in the hopes of getting the other person to disclose similar information.
The latter case is often used when a question
may be considered too personal since it doesn't REQUIRE an answer.
Disclosing something else or changing the subject is quite acceptable.
Disclosing too little information can be seen
as being withdrawn or not willing to talk, or simply not willing
to disclose a particular piece of information.
Disclosing too much information may have the following
• Being seen as someone who is too trusting, perhaps even a potential
• Being seen as someone less trustworthy, if the information is
about other people
• Being seen as someone who is dangerous or ditzy
• Being seen as being distracted or detached from the flow of the
People will have expectations about how far they want to take any
relationship that develops, and also how quickly. Those expectations
will change as the conversation develops, and it is a bad idea to
try to push this process further than the other person wants to
There are very good reasons for everyone to be
careful about how deep they go into any given relationship. In fact,
an ability to know when to stop going deeper is probably one of
the best survival techniques.
This is probably the most difficult part of any
successful conversation. If you have absolutely no ability to start
worthwhile conversations, it is a good idea to think about the way
people introduce themselves to you to get a feel for how it is done
before embarking on the mission of learning this skill yourself.
It's a good idea to have practiced your other
conversation skills first with people who introduce themselves to
Pay particular attention to the subjects people
raise. They may have something to do with the current environment
or situation or perhaps they are trying to confirm things about
the impression they have of you. If different people keep raising
the same subjects, it may be due to your image or appearance.
Also pay attention to the care with which people
approach you. An example of this was when I realized once that people
kept raising the subjects of consumerism, biking and heavy metal.
And when I thought about it, it clicked that I am quite a big man,
with a long beard and hair who wears a biker jacket and no jewelry.
People were thinking I might be a biker or a hippy. I didn't like
the biker image, so I stopped wearing the jacket.
Avoid trying to learn things from how people greet
(and interact with) each other unless you know about their relevant
backgrounds and their relationship to each other. Friends greet
each other in different ways from strangers, and greeting strangers
like friends is quite a dangerous thing.
It is quite important to be in a happy, comfortable
mood when meeting strangers. If you are going to go somewhere to
meet strangers, try to prepare yourself beforehand by thinking about
things that make you happy.
Conversation starters are also known as icebreakers
or openers. The best icebreakers are "open-ended questions".
An open-ended provides space for a long varied answer e.g. "So
how do you know the person holding this party?" A close-ended
question restricts answers to just a "yes" or "no"
such as asking "It's cold tonight, isn't it?"
Visualizing social interaction
Visualizing social interaction will not be 100%
effective or appropriate at all times. In fact, non-autistic people
tend to approximate everything at best. It is worth noting though
that visual thinking is an autistic strong point, and it is very
likely that a visualized understanding of social interaction is
going to be the most effective.
It is often said that people on the autism spectrum
focus on the detail, with non-autistics focus much more on the overall
Plot is exactly like the plot in a movie or TV
show. The sequence of events is more important than the exact details
about the events themselves.
The information gleaned from observing the events
and their sequence goes towards building a picture of the situation
an observer is currently in. This is "situational awareness".
This situational awareness is related to self-interest
in the non-autistic mind and provides the observer with information
about threats and opportunities in the social environment.
Also, the information gleaned from observing what
other people do goes towards building a picture of "who they
"Do unto others" as a guide for social interaction
There is another possible way to think about
plot versus detail. People who are not experts at something need
to consciously think about doing it until they become experts. People
who are experts at something know their field so well that they
base their real time actions on their detailed understanding rather
than conscious thought.
Conscious thought tends to get in the way of doing
something efficiently even for experts, however using conscious
thought is usually necessary when fixing mistakes. It may be the
case that the "fluid" behavior of non-autistic people
in social situations is based on this kind of expert understanding.
One way of keeping a grip in social interaction is by applying the
second commandment, "you must love your neighbor as yourself".
One translation of this rule reads "do unto others as you would
have others do unto you".
Most people seem to try to follow this rule even
when they don't know about it, and those that aren't, try to appear
as if they are.
Nobody ever succeeds in following it 100%, however,
honest people will usually try to fix their mistakes when they realize
them, and they usually try to do so according to this rule.
By working out all of the things a person is doing
to other people that they would accept other people doing to them,
it is possible to "zone in" on acceptable behavior
By working out all of the things a person is doing
to other people that they would not have the other person do to
them, it is possible to work out whether someone is being malicious
or not, and even the nature of that malice.
In the case of conflict, it is often possible
to perform this "calculation" for every deed involved
and come up with extremely equitable resolutions based on the things
that people should be doing, before other people even realize there's
It is often possible to figure out if someone
is trying to deceive you by working out whether the person is willing
to do themselves what they are trying to convince you to do. Asking
detailed questions can reveal the deceit.
People who clearly have no interest in following
this rule are usually well worth avoiding.
The second commandment is not a bad rule to live
by either, but it doesn't work perfectly if you don't know what's
important to other people.
Even so, if you wish to question or challenge
people on the basis that they have broken this rule, then you pretty
much need to be obeying it yourself. Otherwise you can be seen as
It is fair to say that everybody has their own
personal preferences about how they like to be treated, and it would
therefore be breaking the rule to not treat other people according
to those preferences once you learn about them.
On the other hand, using your own preferences
when you don't know the other persons, as the rule would at first
suggest can be a good starting point for people you don't know.
Beware though that you may not know whether you like to be treated
a particular way by strangers until you experience it.
It is possible to take this rule way too far and
never do anything for yourself.
Many of the laws of physics seem to apply in the
average social interaction. For every action, there is an equal
and opposite reaction. EVERYTHING that happens has meaning.
Imitating Non-Autistic Behavior
It should be noted that, if you are going to imitate
non-autistic thought or Behavior, always give yourself time to be
you. Be sure you give yourself time and space to just be yourself
and not worry about pretending.
Read about rules of social interaction, and about
how to learn what they are yourself. Marc
Segar's book is a good place to start.
Some rules are relatively easy to learn, such
as degree of eye contact, physical distance from others, appropriate
greetings, and the amount of talking versus listening you should
Other rules are much more complex such as flirting
and interpreting body language. The rules can be endless and non-autistic
people appear to estimate them within appropriate limits on the
Pretending to be non-autistic for too long can
be detrimental to your health, self-confidence and well-being. Give
yourself set times and places where you can be yourself.
Imitating Non-Autistic Thought
Learn everything you can about how non-autistic
people think and learn. They learn moment-to-moment. Read about
monotropism/polytropism and what Marc Segar has to say about "plot"
and imitate non-autistic thought processes in all social situations.
Learn about their priorities in life too, but
avoid imitating the social status game unless you want life to become
needlessly interesting. Use the second commandment instead - do
to others as you would have them do to you.
Advantages of this approach
Most of the things in the non-autistic world make
a lot more sense when knowing where they're coming from. Body language
appears to make much more sense "naturally" too. Done
correctly it seems to work fairly well in gaining some equality,
but most non-autistic people seem to find people who can otherwise
interact well but who are unwilling to play the social status game
creepy, amongst other things.
Disadvantages of this approach
Can feel unnatural, superficial and boring. It's
rather necessary to have some kind of pay off to make this work.
Mastering the art of thinking according to "plot" means
that it is possible to BEGIN learning the way non-autistic people
do. At this point, it becomes a game of "catch up".
Time spent imitating non-autistic people is time
that could be spent in other forms of self-development that can
lead to a more fulfilling life.
Tips for teaching yourself social skills
In all likelihood, you may be your own best teacher.
To get the best out of your self education, it
is probably necessary to adopt certain attitudes and behaviors that
best enable you to research and study better ways to deal with the
The habit of spending time thinking things through
is often quite useful, but it's easy to waste that time trapped
in logic loops. If you realize that you are trapped in such a loop,
then questioning and testing the logic can help. You can learn a
LOT from doing this.
If it is not possible to test the logic, then
finding something else to think about for a while is probably better
than wasting your time.
Development cycle for social skills
The basic method behind developing anything such
as an invention, a product, an idea or a recipe for a really great
cup of coffee is to repeat through the different phases of a Development
The phases of the development cycle are: design
-> build -> test -> post-mortem.
To make a recipe for a really great cup of coffee
start by making or obtaining a basic one (design), then make a cup
(build), taste it (test), then find something that isn't really
great about it (post mortem). Change the recipe to make it better
(design) and repeat until you have a really great cup of coffee.
The recipe should now be for a really great cup of coffee.
These steps may seem rather obvious, but it is
very easy to lose track of where you are in this cycle when developing
more complex things such as rules to live life by. Skipping steps
in the cycle or not doing them properly often ends up in wasting
lots of time. Also, shortening the time taken for a step while still
performing it properly allows development to occur at a faster pace.
The "scientific method" is very similar
to the development cycle, but where the development cycle applies
to practical things, the scientific method applies to theories.
The "reduction algorithm"
Having figured something out, it is often possible
to learn even more by eliminating the irrelevant from what you have
learned and dissecting the rest to its simplest possible components.
Those smaller components are often more applicable
to radically different aspects of life, and are also much easier
to explain and to prove to other people.
Knowing a few broadly applicable rules in life
is much easier than knowing lots of complex ones.
Putting up with things you don't have to put up
with usually wastes yet more time.
It's fair to say that "hyperfocusing"
on solving social interaction problems is destructive to the process
of learning about social interactions. Example follows: XXX
Taking the perspective that "nobody ever
does anything without a reason" helps a great deal when trying
to understand people.
Running away from threats can mean surviving,
but possibly running forever.
Running into threats can mean suffering serious
loss. Keeping a safe distance from threats can mean gaining the
opportunity to study them.
Take pains to find and fix your mistakes, but
never EVER apologize for who you are. Other people WILL try to make
you do this.
Trying to memorize rules and remember them later
is probably not the best thing to do. A way that seems to work better
is to try to reason on them and leave it till a later date for them
to show their worth.
If life isn't like falling off a log, you're probably
doing something wrong.
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the
Free Documentation and is adapted from an article called A Survival
Guide for People Living on the Autism Spectrum. Click here
to read the full publication at WikiBooks.
Click here to go to the
home page to view the full range of autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
Click here to
read personal stories by adults with Asperger's syndrome.
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU
Free Documentation and is adapted from WikiBooks.