Why Aspies Have Difficulties Socializing - Tips
By Jessika Endsley
It is common knowledge that people on the Autistic Spectrum, including those with Asperger's Syndrome, tend to lack in the department of social skills. It is one of the main points that will result in a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome and is the primary point highlighted in the media when Asperger's is addressed. Poor eye contact and a lack of filtering thoughts are the most common aspects that are observed, and while there are many opinions and much advice offered to improve these skills, it often falls on deaf ears for the simple fact that Neurotypicals do not understand why the concept of social skills makes no sense to Aspies. And if there is no logic to it, chances are, few Aspies will be paying attention for long.
There is no one answer as to why social skills evade those with Asperger's Syndrome, but those who do have it often agree that the speed in which the world is processed seems to be different (and much more overwhelming) than for Neurotypical people. While Neurotypical children watch and mimic the social behavior around them, a child with Asperger's is busy processing detail while often ignoring the larger picture. The sensory issues seen in all people on the Autistic Spectrum, including intolerance to bright lights and loud sounds, deeply influence our ability to take in small social cues that most people pick up on without an issue. So many tiny social cues are not made with a conscious effort, such as the widening of the pupils when feeling friendly, and body position when speaking. Along with having too much going on to really deal with these tiny cues, Aspies are obsessive people. We are always thinking about our obsessions, and quite frankly, anything else is going to take a backseat to this.
Those with Asperger's Syndrome often prefer things to be logical. Logic gives the world a sense of structure for us; this contributed to our overall non-adjustment to social rules. When offered assistance to develop social skills, whether through advice, classes, or written guides, it tends to leave out the real reasoning behind it. Telling us "it's rude" does not exactly work as an explanation. Rude is subjective. Why is it rude? Why do people get offended by honesty? Why do people need me to look at them for them do believe I am listening? But the Neurotypicals who try to explain it often have no idea how to explain it or how these rules became important. While Aspies quickly learn that social cues exist, we cannot see them and adjust our behavior accordingly without a bit of thought and effort, and many of us are unlikely to do that without solid reasoning as to why. Finding that reasoning is best done through human psychological and behavioral studies, and also by ripping apart and analyzing common social constructs, hoping for a shred of logic to be inside.
Not to alarm any fellow Aspies, but we are sending social signals at all times and we are supposed to be receiving them as well. When you are standing across the room from a stranger, there are small cues that the stranger is sending regarding your presence. If he was not a stranger, his body may face you and he may try to make eye contact and even wave. Neurotypical behavior naturally flows with the people around them; they are in a constant and generally fluid exchange of information. We, however, are not, but we can learn to recognize what is going on a bit better, or at least understand why we come off the way we do to other people.
Starting from the top, with one of the most awkward body parts for people with Asperger's to deal with, are the cues from the eyes. Aspies are known to either fail at making eye contact or sometimes making overly-intense eye contact. If you are like me, you may turn your face away from your speaking partner entirely while listening to what they are saying. In most animals, eye contact is generally a sign of aggressiveness; this could be linked to why some Aspies feel uncomfortable with eye contact.
Teachers and parents will often become irritated when a child does not make eye contact while they are speaking. It is seen as a sign of disrespect, or even of lying (although the latter is unfounded in science) and therefore the authority figure will feel the need to scream "look at me" at the offending child. This is because humans (and most animals) gaze at things which are of interest to them. Being a self-absorbed and egotistical species, it is preferable for a speaking partner to look directly at what is seen as the focal point of the recipient, and that is the eyes. When we don't do this, we are seen as being uninterested and this is a direct insult to the authority of the person speaking and can even make a peer feel unwelcomed or as though they are not being listened to. It may also make them believe that nothing we are saying is true; from an early age, parents tell their children to "look them in the eye" when the child is believed to be lying about an action. It doesn't take a genius to quickly learn that their parents will believe their lies when they make eye contact, and yet they still believe eye-contact is the key to trustworthiness.
There are ways around this issue. Trying to force eye contact, if you're on the Autistic Spectrum, can be counter-productive. We may be unlikely to know when we should look away. We may just look creepy because our pupils do not necessarily dilate when we approve of something (thanks to an overflow of information we cannot regulate naturally) and this may make us seem "off" to a Neurotypical. By making short, quick glances at the eyes of our speaking partner or by looking somewhere near the eyes, we can look more engaged without looking too intense. However, excessive shifty-glancing can look strange on in its own right, so it may be preferable to tell someone you will be speaking too for a long period of time that you simply listen better when looking elsewhere (and if you prefer, just disclose that you're on the Autistic Spectrum.) The person will likely appreciate that information and begin to feel more comfortable speaking to you. The best technique often depends on the individual situation and the severity of disdain for eye contact.
Facial expressions are not often a strong point in those with Asperger's Syndrome. We may fail to read them and also fail to make them, and when we do, they may be inappropriate or exaggerated. Facial expressions are an unwritten language that the world uses to communicate. Since it may be true that over 90% of all communication is nonverbal, we end up feeling like we were left out of an important meeting on how to function in life. And when we want to connect to others, it becomes even more frustrating, since human emotional connections are formed through the eyes and the face.
It can be subconsciously obvious when a smile is fake. It is tiring to fake a smile, but if you must, at least do it correctly. If you smile with your mouth but not your eyes, you could end up the object in a statement such as "she is so fake." Although these tiny social cues are learned by mimicry, the idea that an expression or gesture may not be genuine is very upsetting. The world feels more comfortable when your face matches your mood; when this is realized, it will be exceptionally easier to succeed in social situations. To smile with your eyes, be sure you are slightly squinting when you smile. If your upper face does not change when you show your teeth, it will look fake. If you live in America, however, a fake smile is customary in many shallow social situations; it seems to say to the speaking partner that you are willing to be polite and seem friendly no matter what, including in business dealings. It's acceptable and desired to be fake. This is not common in many other culture.
Aspies who want to blend in may benefit from studying pictures of facial expressions and learning to recognize the emotions behind them. This can help you to respond correctly to a statement made by a friend, and can also be helpful in practicing facial expressions yourself. Just keep in mind, however, that if you come off as normal in a social situation and then grow tired of tediously checking your facial expressions, the people around you may become convinced that something is wrong.
The way a person stands and carries themselves can say a lot about their mental state. Police officers and mental health workers are trained in this area because they often work around unpredictable and emotional people. Even if you're an Aspie who does not wish to develop social coping skills or maybe doesn't even care to understand them, learning about body language can be extremely beneficial in protecting yourself from dangerous people. You may be amazed when you realize how many shady, neurotic people are out there and you don't even have to talk to them to know it.
A fundamental basic of body language is posture. Some of us have awkward posture that in no way reflex how we feel or what kind of person we are. Most people, however, are broadcasting information in their posture. Someone standing with their arms crossed may not want to be talked to and is probably guarded. If this person is sitting, and also has one leg crossed or both legs tucked under them, you are dealing with someone who would like to avoid conflict and possibly avoid any interaction at all. If the person is also looking down, they surely want to be left alone. If they are looking out, and even engaging in conversation, their body language is more subconscious. You now may be aware of something that they don't know about themselves.
If a person stands with their shoulders back, relaxed, and their head up, they are expressing confidence. This is a typical male stance, and a typical stance for anyone at all in the United States. It's as if the person wants to take up a larger amount of room than they need so as to express their confidence. However, watch where their feet point; they may feel strongly towards the person their feet are pointed towards, and that strong feeling may be aggression. If you add crossed arms to this situation, it is more probable that aggression or arrogance is a trait in the speaking partner.
Pay attention to how much the person is fidgeting. Tapping the fingers or rapidly moving a leg can indicate anxiety, boredom, or impatience. If a person is doing this, you may want to notice how many times they nod when you say something; if it's only once, it may be time to wrap up your statement. On the other hand, if you fidget, you will be saying to others that you are not listening or that you want to leave. If you pair this with poor eye contact, you may as well be telling the person to shut up and go away. Clasping your hands may help this, or just fumbling with your phone (which can look rude, but can be useful when you fidget a lot and have bad eye contact.)
Lying is complicated (and an awful breech of social contract, in my opinion) but one of the easiest signs to look for is if a person touches their nose while talking. Lying is often accompanied by a surge of adrenaline which can make the nose itch. Lingering eye contact is also a sign of lying, although for most Aspies, any eye contact at all can feel "lingering."
Common Social Situations
Starting a Conversation
Many people with Asperger's Syndrome have expressed the desire to initiate social contact, but they are unsure how to do it appropriately. The first thing to do is to realize that you should not begin speaking to someone if they are speaking to someone else. Talking over others is rude, but be aware that many Neurotypicals are just rude and it has nothing to do with social naivety. This doesn't mean you want to be seen as rude. It is a sign of respect to not assume your conversation is more important than the current one, and respect is a huge deal in communication.
Approach the person you wish to speak, but stop about an arm's length away. This small distance expresses that you intend to speak, but not that you intend to invade personal space. If the person is a stranger, say "hello." The words "hi" and "hey" are more appropriate with people you have already established a conversational relationship with. A longer word may imply more respect. Also keep in mind that using the person's name while speaking makes you come across as friendlier, less self-centered, and attentive. People are self-centered and they love to hear their own name. If the person responds with a greeting, you may begin speaking on your chosen topic.
Even if you begin a conversation with a specific intent, it is customary to ask the other person how they are. If you already know the person, saying "it's nice to see you" will work just fine. A topic that is common, such as weather or television, would be safe topics if you don't already have an agenda. An issue that is common for those of us with Asperger's Syndrome is that we may make inappropriate remarks. Avoid making negative remarks about the person's appearance; if they're fat, chances are they know it and don't want to be reminded. It is important to remember the "emotion" factor in communicating. Also avoid speaking about money, sex, religion, and politics. These topics are rarely "safe" in any social situation, because they get people very worked up, especially if you're not already close to the person you're speaking with.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as interested in our special interests as much as we are. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have more than one obsession, or you have an obsession that allows for good conversation. Usually, though, this isn't the case and if it is, it won't last long. Even if the speaking partner is a close friend, they don't want to hear you go on a two-hour spill about your latest research into antique door knobs. Even if they also like doorknobs, Neurotypicals rarely have the same brand of intense passion for a subject as Aspies do. As disturbing as this is to me, I have become aware that they are equally as disturbed by our hyper-focus on one topic and naivety to most other things. For us, our obsessions are our top priority and everything else is lukewarm water. Have some pity; they live in lukewarm water.
Ending a conversation is an art of its own. If you decide to leave a conversation by leaving physically, you will be seen as rude and may hurt the other person's feelings. Saying "I better be going now" can do a lot for ending a conversation on a pleasant note, and the person you were speaking to will feel a bit more validated that you respected them enough to let them know. Much communication revolves around respect, and although walking away from a conversation you're done with seems ideal, "conversation closure" is the best option when you intend on speaking to that person again.
A few fails in language communication and literal thinking can make many people on the Spectrum sound very negative, if not downright aggressive, to the Neurotypical world. I recently discovered that when someone asks you if you "like" something, and you say no, that means that you must "dislike" it! This is one of the rules in their world that has no logic to it and it's their own fault that they get their feelings hurt. If they asked me if I "disliked" something I was neutral about, I would say no - but that isn't what they mean. So after someone asks you if you like five things that are not one of your favorite things, and you say no, they may think you're just a cynical asshole. Another common issue in Aspie-Neurotypical chatter is that an adult Aspie has usually realized that common ground is found by having an opinion on things. This is great, but in shallow dealings with people you don't know well, expressing strong opinion about everything (and many things are simply begging for a negative opinion) can make the people around you uncomfortable. This makes some sense, because if you are extremely prone to harsh opinion, people will think twice before saying anything in your presence and may even grow to believe you are a gossip. A few neutral, boring statements in a conversation can go a long way for making people comfortable.
Above all else, do not expect transparency in verbal dealings with Neurotypicals. The reason many people with Asperger's need to learn about what to say in conversations is because the Neurotypical world functions around tiny white lies and false communication (which is why learning body language is so important.) Therefore, the Neurotypical you are speaking with (particularly if they are female) will try to read further into a simple statement than they need to. For example, if you say something is "nice," the person may think you were being sarcastic or that you were only saying that to be polite. Trying to alter your own honesty and integrity to cater to mass-paranoia is disgusting, and I won't entertain ways around it.
Romance is tricky for many people, whether they are on the Autistic Spectrum or not. If you are on the Autistic Spectrum and you are inclined toward romantic feelings, chances are, you've been rejected more than you would like to think about. This is especially true for male Aspies; we females got the better end of the deal on this one, because we can come off as shy rather than awkward with little to no effort, and it's also more socially acceptable for us to be quiet people. But there are ways to understand the strange dance that is involved with being romantic with both Neurotypicals and other Aspies.
The first trick is to understand the fine line between flattery and creepiness. When we like something, we like it a lot. This includes other human beings. But no one really wants you to spend two hours Google-searching their old online accounts and making a playlist of their favorite songs since they were fifteen and then sending it to them, although I personally think it's sweet. They don't want you to make a collage of every picture you can find of them, either, and your Facebook status doesn't really need to be about them every time you see each other. You can obsess with them all you want, but do so in your head (or in a journal you can hide.) This isn't because they don't appreciate your interest, and it's one of the few parts of the romance game that make any sense. Neurotypical people who obsess over an individual with the same magnitude that we do are often seen as "crazy" or "stalkers." Their motive is different (and usually centered around a personality hang-up) but it looks very similar, and is very off-putting for most.
People prefer to be asked directly what they like, and for the give-and-take in a romantic (or potential) relationship to be pretty equal. That means you have to spend time with the person. This means you have to tell them information about yourself, and while over-sharing is easy for many Aspies, it can be uncomfortable for a Neurotypical to tell-all at once. The ones who do are often not very stable, or won't want to be with one person for long. Likewise, if you are interested in another Aspie, you may end up hearing a lot of boring, irrelevant details about their life and obsessions very early on while you share many boring, irrelevant details of your own. World-sharing is always going to be a part of romantic attachment, and with good reason; in the long-term, it is good to have common goals. You cannot know these goals without sharing data on each other.
If you do decide to date another Aspie, be aware that their intense interest may be nothing like yours. You may have even less in common with them than with a Neurotypical, who can usually be interested in many things to a degree. Both of you will need to put extra effort into communicating on a common ground, and don't let that only common ground be that you're both "victims of the system." This is a common mentality in Aspies, and while it brings us together for a very good reason, it is an awful foundation for a romantic relationship. A great thing about an Aspie relationship, though, is that there will generally be a mutual respect for one another and the "alone time" you need to recharge. Aspies are harder to offend, so there's more room for error.
Is The NT World Worth Adjusting To?
Deciding whether or not to incorporate a few social skills into your Aspie life can be difficult. It really depends on what your goals are in life, and what traits make up your integrity. Does "faking" a few things bother you? It bothers me, so I only practice the social rules that have logic to back them, and only if they will benefit me. But I can see a form of reasoning behind wanting to learn to be more social, and a lot of that is simple survival. Not all Aspies are comfortable being isolated. Many Aspies feel awful upon learning that they have upset someone. We don't take pleasure out of causing pain; that is not the kind of low empathy that we have. Knowing what is happening in social situations can save a lot of time, and learning to navigate their world may help pave a better way for future Aspies.
Once social protocol has been recognized, if the Aspie wishes, socially appropriate response-behavior can be practiced and used in real life. Confidence in recognizing social situations is useful, but without an appropriate response or at least knowing the options, frustration and meltdowns may still occur. If your complicated social life is interfering with your work (or ability to find work) or even interfering with your emotional health, practicing to fit more into the social world that was created by the Neurotypicals can help a ton, and it can be done without compromising your Aspie mind (it can even benefit of it.) The world will still often feel very chaotic, but adding a method to the social madness can limit the time spent worrying and allow more time for us to focus on our obsessions.