Social Life on the Spectrum
Everyone has some memory that continues to thrill us years later: our first real friend, the first time we went on a date, the time we received an award at work. These memories are sweet and they have a direct impact on our confidence. Human beings derive not just pleasure but also self-respect, a sense of dignity, and a sense of meaning from succeeding socially.
Almost always in my line of work as an autism consultant and educator, the biggest stereotype about autistic adults that I encounter is that having autism-related social challenges means no socializing. Autism is automatically correlated to a preference for isolation or a reduced interest in social contact.
But in reality, individuals on the autism spectrum are, after all, people—human beings with the same hopes, dreams, concerns, and capacity to love as everyone else. I have rarely met anyone—on or off the autism spectrum—who is not comforted by the presence of others, and who does not seek to relate to others one way or another. With this idea as the starting point, the following article explores the impact of social challenges on relationships of all sorts without ignoring corresponding strengths. Strategies to enhance social fluidity and success are also discussed.
Socializing: What Is It and Why Is It So Hard?
Of course I knew the rule, don’t talk to strangers. But the usher at the movie theater wasn’t a stranger anymore, right? After all, we had talked for a few minutes. When I was invited into the little booth to see the movie reels, I couldn’t read the social signals indicating potential trouble.
Every act of social interaction between two people or more is a complex series of delivering and receiving information, making adjustments based on data gleaned, and following through on decisions about what to do. Think about making a friend: First, you have to go somewhere or be doing an activity where you might meet someone to befriend. Then, you have to decode often very subtle cues that another person might want to be your friend. The process of becoming friends involves initiating communication, utilizing and processing verbal and nonverbal language, judging friendship potential, regulating and expressing emotions, sharing interests, establishing rules for joint activities, demarcating interpersonal boundaries, and navigating conflicts. And that is just a friendship! Imagine the added layers of complexity if you want to find someone to date!
Autism-related differences in the wiring of the brain can make socializing an arduous process. Everything from sensory issues to social cognition can factor into the difficulty. Brain-based differences impact the ability to perceive social information, manage and complete social decisions, make social judgments, and protect ourselves during the myriad moment-by-moment fluctuations that are an inherent aspect of human interaction.
Autistic individuals tend to have difficulty generalizing broad rules to specific situations that are in our minds unique. Providing a teenager with dictums such as don’t talk to strangers or be nice are layered with nuances that require assessment of “on the spot” gray areas: Someone can still be a stranger even if you’ve talked for a few moments, and you should not be nice to robbers. How do children learn when to apply a rule and when the rule might or might not stand depending on the social context? Usually by experiment and osmosis, but for children and adults on the spectrum this deficit in generalization can enormously impact peer relationships and social outcomes.
Additionally, adults on the autism spectrum often have a strong tendency to miss nonverbal clues like tone of voice, body posture, or facial expressions that deliver important social clues. Exchanging signals that indicate level of social interest, amount and type of emotion, genuine concern or ulterior motive, is so natural and ubiquitous that neurotypicals don’t even realize they are zipping signals back and forth all the time. Because autistic adults don’t necessarily send the right type or intensity of signals, because the timing of our signals may be off, or because we may fail to send any signal, neurotypicals often conclude erroneously that we are disinterested or unfriendly. Conversely, if we are not adept at scanning and interpreting nonverbal signals, we miss clues that might indicate the potential for friendship or the potential for danger.
Autistic adults tend to understand language so concretely that the subtle meaning of social information may escape us. One young woman on the spectrum told me she didn’t need to use birth control because her mother and her priest both had told her, “You can’t have children until you’re married – ” as in, the process can’t work until you are married, so you don’t have to worry. And one young man on the spectrum argued vociferously about the temperature of his classroom after some girls told him he was hot. The teacher sent him to the principal’s office in a bewildered state—he had no idea why he was in trouble for explaining that the classroom was cool.
Also, social situations are fairly open-ended. In the social world, it is impossible to predict outcomes, come to sure conclusions, or chart a fixed course. Many of us have trouble enough picking what to eat from a menu. You can’t make a chart and plot what will happen if you date Bob, Bill, or Sam. If we can’t see specific reasons for picking one course of action over another, we may lack the ability to make the best social choices.
Furthermore, we often have only a vague idea of how we feel. This can be a problem when we do not know how to use this self-knowledge in social decision-making. A lack of facility with regulating and expressing our emotions results in slow or out-of-proportion responses and inadvertent advertising of our vulnerabilities, too.
Lastly, many of us experience face blindness. This can be mildly embarrassing when we don’t recognize a neighbor or this can be a serious safety issue when we can’t recognize someone who teased, bullied, or attacked us in the past.
Why Not Just Send Autistic Adults to Social Skills Class?
A group of researchers based at the University of Indiana published a meta-analysis  of research studies on the efficacy rates of social skills classes. The data indicate that social skills training programs are ineffective in the long-run. While the study suggests that intensity and implementation of the classes plus identification of deficits are factors, the answer is also at least partially because autism is neurological.
We can usually remember the lessons, rules, and facts we are taught regarding basic social etiquette. In this sense, social skills classes can be extremely valuable. No one is suggesting to scrap social skills classes altogether. It is easy enough, for example, for me to memorize that when I walk into a room, I should say a positive greeting if I discover other people in there.
But the deeper cognitive, social, and linguistic challenges associated with autism just do not go away by taking a class. While I will likely remember to say, “Hello,” to you if I see you, this is no guarantee that I will say hello with the right tone of voice, or that I will know what to do if you say, “Bug off!” or if you rush over and give me a big hug. The social world is too varied and random to conform to a set of rules or procedures. Every social moment is new, singular, and met with our unique autistic profile.
Building on Strengths: What Autistic Adults Have to Give
Too often, the microscope is focused on all that is wrong with us. Yet, autistic adults actually have much to contribute to friendships, relationships, and families. Take, for example, the deficit in nonverbal language. Much misunderstanding results because we do not always use the common currency of social signals adroitly or at all. But “the autistic way” could actually benefit society. I have observed neurotypicals send out very subtle signals that, for example, indicate they need help. The person will not say distinctly, “I need help,” but will rather resort to every other possible means of conveying the same idea. If autistic people do not compute the top-secret coded messages, then we are labeled lacking in empathy or self-centered. But why is the fault always with our reception and not with neurotypical delivery? I posit that our society needs more direct communication and a lot less presumption of meaning.
Also, our need for personal space or quiet time is often misinterpreted as a lack of social connection. I have observed neurotypicals in relationships of all sorts and a premium is placed on togetherness. It is OK to go to a museum or spend the afternoon watching cargo ships in the harbor alone. This is something we can teach neurotypicals: Time for your own activities and interests allows you to develop yourself. Then you have more of “you” to give.
Although I could give a plethora of examples of how our autistic “deficits” can be strengths when you flip your viewpoint, one more comes to mind: sensory issues. Over and over again I hear neurotypicals say something like, “Our autistic family member can never go to the mall without a complaint! She says the noise is too overwhelming! It ruins our fun!” But indeed, why does the music need to be so loud to shop for clothes? Maybe a little more peace and quiet would do all of us some good to calm our jangled modern nerves.
All human beings struggle to find love and happiness. Autistic adults are no exception. To equate social challenge with no socializing does a disservice to autistic adults. That being said, people do not have to engage socially in typical ways. A gentleman attended a social group for adults on the autism spectrum for an entire year and the whole time he sat in the back of the room on a couch by himself and did not say one word. Then, on a holiday, he brought in cupcakes for everyone. Surprised, the group leader said, “I thought you weren’t enjoying yourself.” The man replied, “No! This group is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” as he took his usual spot on the sofa.
The less neurotypicals and autistic adults assume about each other, the better. Deploying autistic strengths by making connections to others based on special interests, by revitalizing relationships with direct communication, and by valuing the autistic way of living and loving will, commensurate with sensitive social skills support, help adults on the autism spectrum reach the social goals they set for themselves. In summary, when preparing our sons and daughters, loved ones, students, clients, and ourselves for the social world, we must consider how autistic people hear and process information, deal with emotion and choice, and prefer to communicate and socialize so that we can all promote the healthiest and least risky paths to friendship, outreach, and love.