A frequent issue for those struggling with social skills is the question of how much to share. How long should your answer to the question last? How many reasons should you give if you’re late? What private information should you share with others?
Of course, the answer, as always, is that it depends. But, I not going to leave you with that. There are basic rules, and clues that you can read. For example, a standard answering machine message is set to record a standard message. If you always run to the end of the time limit, that’s a good clue that you’re talking too long. A voice mail or answering machine is set up to take basic information. Your name, your number, a brief reason why you’re calling. Maybe, to make life easy for the other end, you can repeat your name and number. Don’t give a bunch of reasons, don’t share all the details, don’t have the conversation without the other end there to listen.
It’s the same with emails. Take a look at a series of back and forth email correspondence. Is your answer always the long one? Does your email go to auto shutdown when you’re writing? It’s an email, not a thesis.
If you’re speaking face to face, the clues are a bit more direct, and easy to read once you know how. If your listener is nodding, saying things like “um-hum” or “yeah” that’s a good clue that they’re listening. If they look around the room, over your shoulder, or at their watch, you’ve lost them. Stop. (Maybe they’re captivated by your topic, but they just need to make sure they’re not late to pick up the kids. That’s OK. You should still stop talking. If they want you to continue, you’ll get a very solid clue like, “Go on, what were you saying?”)
When people are interested in your topic, they should be asking questions, or contributing from their point of view. That’s great, it’s a sign that the conversation is flowing well.
Which of course, leads right back to the idea of eye contact. Part of the reason that the speaker periodically looks at the listener is to gauge if they’re still listening. If eye contact is tough for you, you can still look over at the forehead or eyebrows.
Finally, the basic rule is that the closer the relationship, the more intimate the details you share. So it’s probably OK to tell your mom about your latest bout with the flu, but for the office, “I’m feeling much better, thanks!” may be just right.
This morning I was driving past a middle school just as the kids were walking in. I think there is some kind of science project due today, because a lot of the kids, who looked like eighth graders, were carrying massive airplanes, catapults and mazes. They were beautifully built, sturdy and streamlined, and very professional. Wait a minute! Why are a bunch of 13 year olds carrying professional projects? Who built those projects? How many 13 year olds know how to saw, drill, and especially design machines like this? I suspect a lot of parents had to make these out of control projects. Is there a point to this?
Homework is a problem for so many families. I think it’s even harder for special needs families, because they’ve already got extra responsibilities, Therapy takes time, Floortime takes time, play dates take time. Then add in a bunch of worksheets and projects and there isn’t any way to manage everything.
Sadly, the research on homework and its effectiveness is not very compelling. Although some studies show it’s effective, others show that it isn’t. For something to dominate the free time of so many families, I think there really should be good evidence that it works.
Recently, the San Ramon Valley Unified PTA parenting conference showed the documentary Race to Nowhere. This film examines the pressure on today’s school kids and families. It doesn’t have a special needs focus, but it’s relevant to every family with kids in school. There are many local screenings here in the Bay Area as well as elsewhere, so it’s worth trying to find a showing.
There’s also a great blog on homework written by a Danville, CA mom, Kerry Dickinson, called East Bay Homework Blog. I just discovered it, so I haven’t read all of it, but there are excellent arguments against the mindless assignments so many kids are getting, as well as many links to other sites.
Kids need free time. Parents need free time. We all need time to relax, enjoy each other's company, have some fun. Take a look at how your family is spending their time. Is building a catapult what you'd choose to do?
Frequently, kids on the autism spectrum attend social skills classes. There, kids are taught the basics of getting along with others, things like making good eye contact, respecting others' personal space, the rules of give and take in conversation. Usually, after a few months or sometimes a couple of years of these sessions, the members move on to other activities and social skills training formally ends. (When I talk with adults with ASDs, they often complain bitterly about how much they hated these classes and how they didn’t learn what they needed from them.)
But we all, kid or adult, need good social skills to get along with others, and everyone needs to have supportive relationships. That requires a lot more than the basics taught in children’s social skills classes. So how can adults on the spectrum improve their social skills?
Sometimes, adults are lucky enough to find a support group where they can interact with others who might be willing to practice some skills, give honest feedback, or even just be patient with those whose social skills might be a bit off. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of these groups they can be a great source of both support and a learning environment. Other adults find a partner or close family member who can help with interpreting the more precise situations. For many adults on the spectrum, a parent, sibling, or partner really functions as a social skills coach. (For an example of this, read Mozart and the Whale, reviewed in a previous post, where a married couple, both with Asperger’s, demonstrate how they use their relationship to improve their skills. Each learns to pay attention to the other’s signals, manage their tempers and respect each other’s boundaries throughout the course of their relationship.)
For people without the advantages of close relationships, there are still ways to learn these skills. One option is to hire a coach or therapist. These professional relationships are specifically designed to provide that detailed feedback in a safe setting. It can be very different from interacting in a give and take two way friendship. But not everyone is comfortable about working with a professional, and that’s where books can help.
Michael Yapko’s Depression Is Contagious: How the Most Common Mood Disorder Is Spreading Around the World and How to Stop It is all about how social relationships are crucial in preventing depression. Yapko argues that our modern culture is failing us with its emphasis on instant gratification, personal fulfillment, technology and acquisition, all at the expense of good relationships with others. Throughout the book, Yapko presents the skills he finds most important in establishing and maintaining good relationships, things like setting good personal boundaries, analyzing character before starting relationships, and how to manage conflict. The book has little self help exercises throughout, called “Learn by Doing” and “Pause and Reflect” where the reader can actually work on these skills individually. Although it’s not referred to as such, this book is really the closest thing I’ve read that could be considered a “Social Skills Book for Adults”. If you’re looking for a way to improve your relationships, get along better with others, and manage both personal and professional interactions, check out a copy of Depression Is Contagious.
Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Story, by Jerry and Mary Newport, with Johnny Dodd, is a sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiring story of a couple who never really fit in, until they met each other. Jerry Newport is the author of several earlier books, and he’s been quite active in the Asperger community, even starting the support group where he met his future wife.
Both Jerry and Mary Newport relate the stories of their own difficult childhoods, growing into adults who struggle with relationships, underemployment, and social isolation. Jerry’s portrayal is engrossing for many reasons, not the least of which is his unique way of viewing the world through numbers. In spite of his mathematical genius, Jerry struggles to find a career that uses his skills in any way, and frequently has to make a living through less challenging jobs, and admits to having no concept of how to relate to women.
Mary’s story is less typical, and often truly tragic. So often, Asperger’s is thought of as a male diagnosis, and women on the spectrum are overlooked. Mary Newport, as so often happens with Asperger’s women, does manage to have relationships, although they fall into the realm of dysfunctional, often abusive, and sometimes bizarre.
The framework of the book, and the real soul that makes the story so is compelling, is the couple’s relationship, their struggles to connect and understand each other, and their commitment to support each other and grow. They often don’t fit the norms society may expect, but Mozart and the Whale is inspirational.
The Alert Program for self regulation is a wonderful tool for kids (and adults) who struggle with managing their own level of attention. Throughout the day, kids are expected to adjust to the school schedule. They have to jump into the morning bright and attentive, while still sitting quietly and listening to the teacher, then move into socializing at recess, then sit right back down, up and down, all day long. And the demands don’t end with the school day. Kids today have homework, classes, practices and activities. The pace alone can make it hard for any kid to manage, and it’s especially difficult for those kids with ADHD. (A lot of kids on the autism spectrum fall into this category as well, even if they don’t have an official ADHD diagnosis.
The Alert Program was developed by Mary Sue Williams, OTR/L and Sherry Shellenberger, OTR/L to bring together ideas from sensory integration and present them in a way that’s concrete and easy for children to utilize. It was developed for kids, but has been adapted for teens and adults, and I find it useful for almost any age client.
You can learn more about the Alert program from their website, or the book “How Does Your Engine Run?” : A Leader’s Guide to the Alert Program for Self-Regulation.
A lot of people, usually women, call me because they suspect or wonder if their partner or spouse might have Asperger’s or autism. They might be looking for a way to understand, a solution to a specific problem, or a way to “fix” their partner. (If you’re wondering, no I can’t fix your partner, that would be like trying to fix my left-handedness. Asperger’s is a neurological and behavioral difference, not something to be fixed - which doesn’t mean that all couples can’t learn to communicate and relate to each other in a healthier way.)
There are many reasons a person would choose to be involved in a romantic relationship with an individual on the autism spectrum. Often the autistic partner is more reliable, honest and steady, there’s usually a relief since there’s so much less game playing. A lot of men with Asperger’s seem to really see the woman for who she is, not being drawn in to the cultural limitations that women must fit a certain mold. And of course, the intellectual depth can be very appealing.
At the same time, autism and Asperger’s really do involve a different way of seeing the world and dealing with it, especially socially, in the context of relationships. This fact can mean real difficulties within marriages. All marriage counselors quickly see that the very things that draw a couple together in the first place are the same things that really bother them later on. The strength of Asperger’s that draw a couple together can also pull them apart.
For those neurotypical spouses and partners looking for support, GRASP has an new online group. GRASP, The Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, has a number of local support groups, primarily on the East Coast, as well as online support groups for various Asperger’s related issues. One of the great strengths of GRASP is its strong support of adults on the spectrum, as well as the focus on having autistic individuals running the organization. If you’re a neurotypical partner of an individual on the spectrum, why don’t you check out this new group?
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.