Learning Social Skills As An Adulthood

I think I had unusual experiences with Asperger’s Syndrome. Perhaps others with the disorder might benefit from them. My disorder was not diagnosed until I was 62 years old. I did not know what in the world was wrong with me, but I knew that it was something serious.

I was able to gradually figure out that I did not have the social skills that other kids seemed to be developing as they grew up. My attempts to copy the behavior of others did not work. I guess my early efforts were based too much on trying to do what other kids did without the requisite understandings. My judgment about what to copy was no good. If I was impressed with someone’s boasting, that seemed to be as worthy of my mimicry as anything else.

At any rate, throughout grade school, high school and college, I did not seem to be getting anywhere. During my doctoral studies, I stumbled on a package of materials titled “Interpersonal Communication Skills.” Each exercise in the package defined one specific skill, gave examples, and then a sequence of practice exercises. For the first time, I had a vocabulary of the “good” social skills before me – I did not have to make choices. The concrete examples and skill-building exercises appealed to my analytical mind. I could envision a path toward improvement.

Over the following years I would select one skill at a time to practice in social settings. The road to improvement was rocky, but I gradually began to incorporate some of them into my interactions with other people.

Social Skills

That’s enough background. I want to get to the point of this paper. The point is that I have some suggestions for adults with Asperger’s Syndrome who desire to improve their social skills. I think I have learned some things the hard way through trial and error. It would give me great pleasure if I could make the same process easier for others.

Make sure that you are correctly diagnosed (healthline.com) and read all you can about your condition. Enroll in a program where you can learn and practice social skills in a safe, group environment with the direction of a skilled practitioner. Don’t screw around trying to do this on your own like I did — it will take forever and you will have to do a lot of back-tracking. You will need support and encouragement. You can get support from the group members and your family. Tell your family what you are doing and why.

But, I want to caution you. If you are practicing a new social skill and you employ it religiously for weeks, maybe even months, your family and friends may not notice. Then, one day you slip, and you get critical feedback about the slip. Incidents like that can seem terribly unfair and they can crush your motivation.

Your family and friends have known you for years. They have developed a set of heavily reinforced expectations about your behavior. When you first change your behavior, their intuitive sense about you is likely to continue to project the “old you” in their minds in spite of the fact that things have changed. People who acquired social skills naturally and intuitively as they grew up cannot be expected to understand what it is like to acquire those skills in a conscious, clinical way. They may not understand your analytical approach to acquiring social skills any more than you or I can understand the intuitive way in which they acquired theirs.

This story is about how I learned to make a habit out of expressing positive feelings with nonverbal communication. Asperger’s Disorder causes me to have a serious-looking stare on my face, to avoid eye contact and hang my head or look off to one side at times that are socially inappropriate. In general, I look unapproachable or disinterested. My goal was to approach people with my head up, a big smile on my face, and make eye contact at least briefly as I passed by.

When I practiced these things around family and old friends, they seemed not to notice. Or, at least, they did not react much differently than at other times. Then, while driving to the hardware store one day, I decided to work on the new skill as I moved through the store. When I got out of the car in the parking lot, my usual stare was on my face, my eyes were first on the door lock, and then on the blacktop as I walked toward the entrance.

As I entered the hardware store, I consciously lifted my shoulders, put a big smile on my face, and made eye contact with the customers and store clerks as I walked by them. Before I left the store, one customer and 2 of the clerks had initiated conversation with me. They had complimentary smiles on their faces too. We even made jokes. What fun. Obviously, they were reacting to my positive nonverbal communications because, when I went to the hardware store in the past, I did not even notice the people and never spoke. I paid for my stuff with my head down and left the store silently – like the man who was not there.

Within a couple of weeks, I was beginning to enjoy going to the store, any store, because it was such a positive, rewarding experience. Strangers were responding to my efforts immediately because they did not have an intuitive sense of me already constructed in their minds – their sense of me was here and now.

The positive reactions I have received from strangers has often buoyed my spirits and given me the will to continue my efforts. Though some of my friends and family eventually did notice a difference and told me about it, it was a very gradual thing that took much longer than it took me to acquire the skill. I think that most of my friends were not aware of changes because they were so gradual. When I asked them about it, they seemed not able to recall the severity of my “old behaviors” and had the impression that the way I was now was consistent with the way I had always been.

Work exclusively on one skill at a time for at least three months. You need the time to understand the nuances for using the skill because you do not have the intuitive sense of it that normal people do. You will likely find that once you have learned and practiced a group of skills, you are not able to consciously use all of them at the same time. I think that is probably normal for a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. Normal people can present several social skills at one time without even thinking about it. I presume that the intuitive part of their brain coordinates the rules of social interaction in an autonomous, or nearly-autonomous way.

If you attempt to employ too many social skills at once, you are likely to lose track of things. Instead, choose one or two social skills that you think best apply to the particular situation and focus on them. I think you will find that you don’t really have to be all things to all people. From my personal observations, I have concluded that normal people who employ only one or two social skills at a time do very well. Focus more on quality than quantity.

Be careful about asking for critical feedback. While it can be a good thing to check your perception of yourself, remember that giving constructive feedback is a complex skill that many people do not have.

Since most people in the world do not have Asperger’s Syndrome, they will often be able to reach critical judgments in an intuitive, rather than analytical, way. You are most likely to get a very generalized statement from them, such as: “Oh, I think you are doing just fine.” Or “You are acting insensitively.” Neither of these examples give the specific feedback you need. They are both judgmental as well. Non-specific, critical feedback is at best too general to be helpful and at worst punishing.

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