Last week I talked about tip 1 if you want to play the small talk game: You Can Keep It Short, But Say Something. This week I’m moving on to my next tip:
2. Dealing With “How Are You?”
“How are you?” is an example of a social script that neurotypicals use all the time. Typically, it’s followed by, “Fine, thank you. And you?” That’s answered with “Fine, thanks.” Most of the time, there’s very little variation to this script, other than the slight modifications involving “great” “pretty good” “hangin’ in there” or for the particularly upbeat “fabulous!”
I think most people learn to follow this script at a young age, although it’s rarely used by kids to each other. But the question is, when do you follow the script, and when are you expected to actually answer the question?
Nonverbal cues give the answer. The problem is that the question can be either a greeting or a true request for information. As a greeting, it’s essentially the same as saying, “Hello.” The person who starts the script will often be walking toward you, and they won’t really slow much, or will even continue talking after asking the question. If you’re getting these signals that the answer is not of much interest, then it’s fine to just follow the script. If you don’t know the person other than to say thanks when they hand you the bag of groceries, the scripted answer is expected.
What are the signs that the questioner really cares about the answer? Well, he or she will often do one of these things:
These are just some of the cues that a real answer is expected. Circumstances make a difference too. If you’re hobbling around on new crutches, just got back from a family funeral, or just won the lottery, the questioner may know that and be asking for greater detail.
In any case, you’re probably safe keeping the initial answer fairly short and positive. If your listener interrupts, looks away or over your shoulder, or even starts to walk again, these are signs the conversation has gone on long enough. And of course, your closer friends will want longer and more honest answers.
As I read blog posts and have conversations with people on the autism spectrum, I continually hear the question, “Why don’t neurotypicals just say what they mean?” It’s true, we don’t and I think I’ll feel embarrassingly shallow next time I ask, “How are you?”
Please check out my new article Adults With Asperger's: How To Manage Eye Contact. It can be found on ezinearticles.com. I've also got a number of other articles on that site on related topics, many written to the parents of kids with Asperger's, autism and ADHD. (On ezinearticles.com I'm Patricia J. Robinson, the Patricia Robinson writing about botox is not me!)
Malcolm Johnson is both a business professional and an individual diagnosed with Asperger's. He writes an interesting and detailed blog about his experiences in the workplace called Aspergermanagement.com. He covers topics like dealing with difficult people, handling meetings, managing your boss and how to handle socializing at work. Check out this blog!
Frequently, adults with Asperger’s will complain about the inane, time consuming, yet somehow valued activity called small talk. Typical offices seem to allow and even require a certain amount of time to be set aside for this type of socializing, even though it’s unrelated to the actual work that needs to be done. I’ve seen many blog postings where people question its value, but it’s here to stay. For neurotypicals, it’s even enjoyable.
Of course, you can do whatever you want with regard to small talk. But, if you think you’re being somehow penalized at work for not participating in small talk, I’ll be posting some tips to play the small talk game.
1. You Can Keep It Short, But Say Something
Let’s say you’re going to get a cup of coffee, and the pot is surrounded by coworkers rehashing the weekend game. You hate football, didn’t see the game, and have nothing to add to the conversation. It’s very logical to ignore the conversation, get your coffee and get back to work.
But, wait! Neurotypicals are trained from infancy to look for subtle clues to other’s feelings, and they can be very insecure. If you say nothing, they will start making all sorts of assumptions, usually assumptions that revolve around their own insecurities. Things like, “Why is that guy so unfriendly?” or, “Why does he hate me?” or even, “Does he know that I’m about to get laid off, and he’s not telling me?”
A better option? Just say, “Good morning!” in a pleasant tone, look at them and smile, and move on to your coffee. This is one of those situations where neurotypicals also use scripts to know what to say. If you have to cut through the group, add in a cheery sounding, “Excuse me.” That’s it. Your coworkers will probably think you’re friendly, but busy, and not even think any more about it.
Please check back here frequently, I’ll be posting more small talk tips.
There is a growing concern among parents that, as their special needs children grow older, police and other officials may misinterpret their more unusual behaviors, putting the child at risk for misunderstandings, arrest or even injury. Please check out Dennis Debbaudt's Autism Risk and Safety Management: Information and Resources for Law Enforcement, First Responders, Parents, Educators and Care Providers. This website provides information for parents and individuals on how to manage interactions with the police, and gives advice on what your children can do to protect themselves. There's also information on how to avoid being the victim of criminal activity.
Because kids on the autism spectrum may have very different ways of interpreting situations and behaving, it's worthwhile to have a discussion in advance, so your kids and teens know what would be expected of them if they got into a police interaction.
Many kids, even those struggling with social skills, can name and identify basic emotions, for example: mad, sad, glad, and scared. But for true social interaction and emotional intelligence, more than these basics are required.
When I work with children who don’t identify emotions well, such as kids and teens with Asperger’s, autism, or ADHD, we spend a great deal of time learning about emotions. This knowledge helps kids in two ways: they manage their emotions more easily, and they deal with other’s emotions more skillfully.
At a very basic level, I start with the four basics feelings listed above. The first step is to identify the feelings of mad, sad, glad and scared. (Even more basic could be only two, glad and bad.) This can be done in a number of ways, such as asking the child how he’s feeling right now, or how he thinks you’re feeling, or how he was feeling when something memorable happened. This feeling identification game can be carried further, such as guessing the feelings of people in photographs or on television shows. Television can be very useful, because, depending on the program, the emotions can be very subtle or very broad. (Any Disney channel kid’s comedy is likely to show very strong, intense, exaggerated emotions, great for beginners. Also, if you record the program you can go back and view it over and over.)
When your child is ready, step into more subtle emotions. You can find great lists of emotion words online, at places like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emotions. Don’t try to tackle them all at once, just as many as you can handle.
Many kids on the autism spectrum love to analyze and classify, and they can do this with emotion. These Wikipedia lists can be ideal for these kids. I’ve worked with some clients who like to graph the emotions, for example showing the intensity of the feeling on a chart. (Elated would be higher than happy, which would be higher than content.) Other kids can graphically show the subtle combinations of how different motions are related to each other.
Just remember, kids on the autism spectrum can think and learn in very different ways than neurotypical kids. Visual and concrete methods can be the best method for them. The goal is to understand emotion, and your children may surprise you once they get started.
Thrive on the Autism Spectrum is the result of combining my original two blogs, Social Skills for Kids, and Coach for Asperger's. I'm finding it harder to keep the two blogs separate, especially because so many issues apply to both kids and adults, as well as work and school. This is a blog aimed at adults and teens with Asperger's and autism, as well as parents of kids on the autism spectrum. It discusses the standard rules of social interactions, things like small talk, starting a conversation, eye contact, personal space, showing boredom. The list goes on and on because there really is an endless list of rules and expectations. I spend a great deal of my time as a coach and a therapist thinking about, dissecting and teaching these rules to my clients.
I’m struggling a bit with these postings, because I’m trying to be very respectful of the rights of my readers. The neurodiversity world, very appropriately, can resent the efforts of neurotypicals who may seem to be trying to get them to change. At the same time, I speak to many people with Asperger’s or autism who pay a high price because they don’t play by or even understand the complex, unwritten, and rather rigid rules neurotypicals have for social interactions.
With that said, I’m hoping my readers will consider this blog with a forgiving spirit. As I frequently tell my clients, if things are going well, then there is no reason to change anything, and these postings are not written for you.
But, if you’re struggling because you’re not getting everything you want and deserve, things like friendships, romantic partners, promotions or professional recognition, then maybe you want to make some sort of change. That’s who I’m writing this blog for.
It would be ideal if everyone was valued and understood in a straightforward way, but that’s not the case. I don’t think neurotypicals deliberately shun those who don’t send the expected social signals. I think they’re mostly not even aware of what they’re doing. It’s instinctive and unconscious, and it’s probably not going to change anytime soon. In this blog, I’m talking about the standard rules as I understand them, and you can make your own choices on playing by them.
Thanks for taking the time to read my opinions. I'd love to hear yours!
Quick, tell me five great things about your child! Maybe he’s funny, clever, caring, honest, loyal. I love when parents can easily rattle off a list of the special traits of their child. And kids love knowing that they are appreciated for all the gifts that make them unique. That’s why it’s so important for parents to focus on strengths.
For kids and teens with a diagnosis, like Asperger’s, autism, or ADHD, this strength based focus is really crucial. So many people are working together to improve your child’s abilities, make accommodations and give them the support they need. That’s great, but the child may start to feel like a list of symptoms and a problem to be fixed, not a well rounded individual. In an ideal world, everyone who came into contact with your child would be enthusiastically looking for the abilities as well as the deficits. Unfortunately, too often, this doesn’t happen. In the rush to fix the problems and comply with all the medical and educational requirements, the special qualities that make your child shine can get overlooked.
This is where parents can really make a difference. You know your child best. You can keep your child’s strengths in mind and share them when dealing with teachers, aides, and medical professionals. (Never walk into an IEP without reviewing your child’s gifts first! The school knows she’s disorganized. Will they remember that she’s gentle and caring with other students as well?) Your child has strengths that are a basic part of his or her personality, and there are strengths that come with the diagnosis as well. I can’t speak about individual personalities, but I do want to look at diagnoses. When kids are diagnosed, it’s generally based on a list of symptoms in the DSM. (The APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) While the DSM focuses on symptoms, there are also a lot of positives that don’t get the attention.
It can be helpful to look to some authors who have focused on a realistic, yet more positive view of a diagnosis. For ADHD, I recommend The Gift Of ADHD: How To Transform Your Child's Problems Into Strengths by Lara Honos-Webb and ADHD & Me: What I Learned from Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table by Blake E. S. Taylor and Lara, Ph.D. Honos-Webb. Both are filled with positive viewpoints of ADHD as a different way of being in the world. For Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorders, the work of Tony Attwood has a positive spin. On his website you can find an article “The Discovery of "Aspie" Criteria” by Tony Attwood and Carol Gray, which looks at Asperger’s as a collection of “strengths and talents.” Online, many of the neurodiversity websites are taking a strength based approach as well.
John Gottman, Ph.D., author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and a prominent researcher on marital happiness has found that successful marriages have five positive interactions for every negative one. I think this can apply to parents and kids as well. Can you list five gifts for every problem your child has?
It's important for parents of kids with a diagnosis of autism or Asperger's to become well educated on the topic, but the task can be overwhelming, and confusing. That's why I'm excited to be adding a link on the side of my blog to Translating Autism, a blog written by "Nestor Lopez-Duran Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher working at a university-based child psychiatric institute in the mid west." This is a new blog, started in 2008 with the goal to "disseminate scientific findings in childhood onset disorders in a format that is useful and accessible to parents, educators and clinicians."
The internet is filled with information on autism, both fact and opinion, and it can be overwhelming to sort through everything out there. Translating Autism shows the latest research and gives the source of the information as well. The blog says that it discusses information from peer-reviewed journals, which I think is an important detail. (For those who aren't familiar with the term, articles in peer reviewed journals have undergone an analysis from other experts, generally to ensure that there's some scientific validity to the research methods. Clearly, not every example of poor science is found, but I think parents can generally trust information in peer reviewed journals more readily than claims that are just published elsewhere online.)
I found this blog's tone to be pretty accessible technically, written in an interesting manner, and I think it will be helpful to parents as well as adults trying to understand their own diagnosis. Of course, as the blog's author states, it's important to talk with your own medical doctor before taking any advice from a website. Please check it out and see for yourself.
Ideally, play dates should be a regular part of your child’s life, casually held at home on a frequent basis. But, for kids who struggle with social skills, like those with ADHD or an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), play dates can be more about struggle than fun. Still, play dates are so valuable, it’s worth some effort by parents to make sure your kids have great ones. One way to do this is to shake things up a bit, move your child’s play dates from your house to someplace new.
One key trait of kids who struggle socially is that they may be highly attached to routine. And home may be the very symbol for that routine. Bring another child into your child’s home, and you’ve opened the door for all sorts of issues, things like being territorial, not wanting to share, going to hide, or watch TV, or follow some other type of typical routine. Suddenly, it’s not just a play date, it’s a power struggle.
So, where can they go to play? Here’s where you have to consider your child’s individual temperament and sensory issues. Most kids will adapt their mood in different environments. Think specifically about what kind of stimulation your child will be getting in different places. How does your child deal with sounds, lights, textures? If your child is very sensitive, test out any new setting alone before adding the additional pressures of another child.
If kids can take the stimulation, I think a park or playground is ideal. It’s nobody’s territory and the setting is easy to supervise. If you’re lucky enough to have access, a beach or pool lends itself well to casual play opportunities. Also try out snow, sand, woods, water, or fallen leaves and see if that’s a soothing yet energizing setting for play. Nature and the outdoors can be so important for kids that it’s worth some effort to really try out different outdoor settings until you find something that fits.
If your child is one who seems to come unglued without a ceiling overhead, you may have to concede to hold play dates indoors for a while. Indoor play areas can be a little trickier to find, as well as more expensive, but you don’t need anyplace fancy or elaborate. Think again about sensory issues and pick a place that feels sheltered and not too stimulating. There are lots of small, lesser known museums, little traveled malls, libraries, bookstores, or pet stores that may allow your child to interact with a friend in a simple, casual way.
As your child gets used to playing with others,you can experiment with trying out each other homes. Having a parent for each child can make the stress more manageable. Above all, keep trying. Play dates are important and every little success makes the next play date easier.
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.