The biggest negative I’ve always had with my autism/Asperger’s is not fitting in with other people. Throughout my school and college years it caused me immense difficulties, so much so, I wonder how I ever made it to the other side without deep depression and permanent psychological damage.
In my childhood years my coping strategy was to stay quiet and not talk to anybody. Not even family and friends. I would not have been able to say much if I wanted to. I’d of course say hello and answer friends’ questions, the best I could, but most of the time I would be silent. I was lucky enough to have a few friends, although I often wondered why someone would want a friend that didn’t talk much. Outside of school I was very close friends with my younger cousin who lived close by. In school had a few friends that accepted me for who I was. They’d grew up with me so they never asked why I didn’t talk as they were used to me.
In my teenage years I remember one of my school friends always being the centre of the crowd and always having funny and interesting things to say. I never wanted to be him, but I wished I had his social skills and ability to talk to others so well. There and then I moved from the stage of being happy not talking and interacting with people to the stage of wanting to talk to other people. At the time I didn’t realise I was about ten years behind everyone else at this skill. It wasn’t something I could just do. I had a hell of a lot of catching up to do and if I’m honest with you it probably took me another 10 years from that point to get to a similar level of ability of making conversation. But, even now in my late 30s, I’m only just about level with the social skills my friends had naturally in their teenage years.
As I moved through to my teenage years, not being able to socialise and communicate with others was more and more of an issue. I quickly realised that if I wanted the things I needed from life then I had no choice but to change. At this age I was looking to the future and I knew that in my adulthood I needed, more than anything, to have a good job and my own family. I’d had a few girlfriends in my early teens but the relationships never lasted long due to my inability to have conversations.
I could not settle for being who I was. As I’ve said in a previous post, the thing that causes us humans to make a change in our lives is when we experience pain. Our instincts and nature kick in and we want to avoid this situation or feeling no matter what the consequences are. I was feeling extremely sad and frustrated (to the point of crying on many occasions) at not fitting in socially but didn’t have the skills or experience to change it.
I had no choice but to go down the hard road of having to gain this experience over many years.
The easiest thing that I could have done would have been to stay the same. In most ways life would have been much simpler. Even though I felt pain, depression and sorrow before I decided to fight my autistic ways. It was nothing compared to the decades of pain, embarrassment and loss of confidence caused by making mistake after mistake in my adolescence and early adulthood at trying to fit in with others, making conversation and being socially accepted. But it was worth the fight in the long run.
I didn’t know I was autistic at the time and it probably would have helped a great deal if I did. It is also easy to see, in hindsight, that I was trying to fit in an adult’s world with the social experience and skills of a young child. It was a battle I could never win initially but in the end made it. But on the flipside if I knew I was autistic/aspergic it could have given me an excuse to give up trying. Either way that happened in the past and we can only change the present and the future. The past is impossible to change.
So now I have battled all these years, have I got to the level of good social skills? Unfortunately not. And could I have tried even harder? At times I certainly could have tried harder if I was even more determined. But I am much better than I was before, much better. I am also happy with the level of progress that I have made over the years. I don’t know if I will ever get to a good level of social skills but I am at on reasonable level and I am accepted by most people once they get to know me.
What can you do to improve your social skills?
- Reading books about autism: reading books about autism and Asperger’s will certainly give you a good understanding about why we are different and some very good strategies to help improve social skills. After I was diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s I read a number of books that gave me really helpful tips. I literally went to the library at college when I had a spare hour and read them for hours in total. Aside from these books I also recommend reading books about neuro linguist programming and self-help books like ‘The Chimp Paradox’.
- Reading fictional books: If, like me, one of the biggest barriers to being social is being able to talk to people I fully recommend reading fictional books. If you are anything like I was when I was younger you probably think fiction is pointless and a waste of time. But it is reading these books that I am definite that they helped me to talk to people much more effectively, fluently and naturally.
- Watching films: watching films with the aim of concentrating how people greet each other, make conversation and their body language. This really helps to give a set of base skills in order to start off a conversation with others. But beware that many films have characters with strong accents and it is easy to pick up say an American accent when you live in England if you use films as a guide too much.
- Conversations are like a game of tennis: This was one of the best things I read about in a book about Asperger’s. You hit the ball to the other person by saying hello and then they can choose to hit the ball back by replying. If the conversation continues you keep hitting the ball to each other until the game ends by either you or the other person. There are ways to end the game as well such as saying: ‘I’m really sorry but I have got to get back for my dinner” etc. If you see it as a game like tennis there are times when you try to keep the conversation going for longer.
- Setting a goal and little targets: Think of something that you would like to achieve which has to be manageable, possible and a date you want it done by. This will be your goal. Then set up little targets that will help you reach your goal. For example, if your goal was to eat you lunch with your friends everyday by the end of the year. You could have your first targets like:
- Sit with your friends for half of the lunch time
- Eat a small easy to manage lunch with your friends on one occasion
- Eat lunch with your friends once per week
- Have lunch with your friends two or three times a week
- Have lunch with your friends most days but allow yourself a day off if you really need space on your own.
- Try once: Often the first step to doing something is to try just once. Give it a go and then you are on the right path to learning more. It needs to be something very easy but something you don’t normally do and something that is unlikely to go wrong. For example, going to a family event that you might enjoy but you would usually automatically say no to or go to a club once or twice that you might enjoy (such as scouts, judo, karate, tennis club, chess club, yoga, piano, walking club, joining a garden allotment or cycling club).
- Push yourself out of your comfort zone: but be a little bit cautious as if you try to do too much too soon you will definitely crash and burn as I have done in the past and it can be hard to recover from. So don’t jump from being housebound to suddenly going to a massive parties a few times a week but gradually and gently do things that you would not normally try. Such as having a small conversation with a chatty shop keeper or librarian. Ordering your own drinks at a bar when meeting a friend or going out with a partner, or ordering and paying for a meal out. If you go on family holidays in the summer and normally stop in at night, try on one occasion, to go out to a club, pub or activity with your family.
- Ignore the Mistakes and Mishaps: things will certainly not always go to plan. You are new at doing these things and like with everything new, practise makes perfect. You will, hopefully, not too often, do things that are embarrassing, upsetting or confidence sapping but the important things is to quickly learn from these mistakes (without dwelling on them too long, by which I mean for no more than a few hours) and forget about it and carry on. People have short memories and something that you think will be embarrassing for the rest of your life will probably be forgotten by everyone involved over a very short period of time.
- Try to make another friend or let someone new into your life: it doesn’t have to be a massive commitment but for example if you are at work and you get on with someone meet outside of work once a year or add them on Facebook or Twitter. Trust me being autistic can be a lonely hard life and having just a few friends can improve things drastically.
- Get into a loving relationship: don’t rush this by any means as you will almost certainly get hurt. But if you feel ready and you are not already in a relationship the best thing that you can ever do to improve your social skills is to get a boyfriend or girlfriend. They will almost certainly want to do the things you don’t normally do, such as go out for meals, cinema, bowling and clubs. You will also meet other people such as their circle of friends and family.
- See your own family a bit more often: it doesn’t have to be on a weekly basis but once in a while see your family such as your grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Just having this social time with them greatly improves your social skills, confidence, happiness and well-being. There is something inside us all (even though we are autistic/aspies) that needs these social connections with others in order to feel happy, loved, cared for and part of the world and society.
- Try to extend conversations with people: If you are like me your often cut conversations short just to get out of the uncomfortableness of it all. But occasionally try to keep the conversation going a bit longer. Think about the questions that people may ask you: such as “how was your weekend?”, or “did you go anywhere nice over the summer?”. Then think of a reply that is a bit more than “I was ok” or “I didn’t do much really.”
I wish there was a shortcut or some magic pill to get you where you want to be socially. If there was I would certainly try it out. Regrettably there is only the hard way which takes a great deal of time. But if you don’t go down that path of trying you will never get there and will stay as you are today (which may be fine for you by the way and if it is then carry on, as long as you are happy). For me I try to strike the balance between not doing too much that it causes me to lose my confidence, be unhappy and makes me hate socialising. To doing enough so that it gradually improves my social skills so I can fit into society well enough to have the life I deserve.
If the world was different everyone in it would understand autism and want to help us all in any way they could. Society would automatically give us the means and resources to live happy, prosperous and fulfilling lives full of meaning and self-purpose. But the world is not orientated for autistic people like us. In fact, I would say, it is much more swayed to people who are on the opposite side of the scale. We can’t choose the world we live in so in my eyes we have to make the best of the world we have got. Go out there confident, happy and strong and the world will react to you in a positive way. Go out there withdrawn, unhappy and defeated and the world will react the way you expect it to. We only make up 1 percent of the population and we have to fight to fit in. For me it is a battle worth fighting.