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.
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.