Ways Adults With Asperger's Syndrome Can Improve Their Social Skills
I've read quite a bit about Asperger's Syndrome, in books and academic articles, but also through a ton of forum posts by people who have it. Below is my synthesis of what seems to help them improve their social skills the most. I'll just be talking about very general ideas. I'm not going to reveal some earth-shattering secret to improvement that everyone else seemed to miss or anything.
People with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) can definitely make progress their social skills. They can be very far behind when they begin, and improvements may come slowly, but at least some people with AS will tell you they eventually managed to acquire a decent base of social competence. Usually what they say is that they still have a lot of their quirky traits, and they realize they'll never be the most magnetic person in the room, but the worst of their problems are behind them.
Figure out where you stand when it comes to your social goals and values
I've read at least two dozen research journal articles that lay out the curricula for therapeutic various social skills training groups, and this never seems to come up. However, when I look at forums about Asperger's and social skills it's an issue I constantly see people struggling with.
People with Asperger's Syndrome often have extremely mixed feelings about the idea of improving their social skills. On one hand they may see how it could help them achieve some of their goals, say of making more friends, or getting into a romantic relationship. However, they may also dislike the idea at the same time, for all kinds of reasons:
- By the time they reach adulthood they may have completely associated socializing with things such as failure, discouragement, anxiety, confusion, depression, rejection, and not being accepted for who they are. It's kind of hard to get enthusiastic about learning and working on something that brings up those feelings in you.
- They may resent that they have to conform to typical people's idea of what good social skills are, even though a lot of those practices seem totally illogical (e.g., "Why can't people just come out and say what they mean? Why is being blunt necessarily such a bad thing? I'd say lying and tip toeing around what you want to say is even worse.")
- Similarly, they may be fed up with constantly getting the message that there's something wrong with them because they have Asperger's and they need to change, even though it's a variation in brain wiring, not some kind of disease.
- They may want certain things for themselves socially, like a social circle that understands them, but have no interest in other aspects of socializing, like small talk or office politics, and not want to learn them.
I think before diving into a program to try to improve their social skills, it would help someone with Asperger's to really explore how they feel about socializing and what they want from it, and get their thoughts and motivations all straightened out and in the open. If everything is clear then they can make an informed decision about how they want to proceed from there. If someone is trying to work on their social skills but their feelings on the matter are totally murky and conflicted, it's going to sabotage their progress.
One person may think about all this and come to the conclusion that they're totally bitter about the idea of improving their social skills, and don't actually want to do it. That's fine, and they can plan accordingly. Maybe they'll try to get past their bitterness, or maybe they'll try to set up their day-to-day life so they don't have to socialize as much.
Someone else may decide that some aspects of socializing rub them the wrong way, but they're willing to be pragmatic and play along to get what they want. Awesome. With their values clarified they can make better decisions about how they'll handle certain situations.
The people who seem to improve the most have a clear idea of what their goals are, and what they're willing to do and not do to achieve them. Some successful people with Asperger's seem to fall into the pragmatic mold, where they come to peace with the fact that the social world is set up a certain way, don't take it personally, and adapt to its rules in order to get the things in life that are important to them. The other type of successful 'Aspie' seems to be someone who wants to live life on their terms and tries to set up their world to accommodate that. They've also made their peace, this time with the things they'll have to miss out on in order to create a routine that works for them.
Make peace with your Asperger-ish traits
Many people with Asperger's struggle with that identity. They can put a lot of work into improving their social skills so they can pass as normal, and their sense of self-worth may be very tied into how successful they are at doing that. I can totally understand how someone could want to get over their interpersonal problems. What can happen though is their self-esteem gets so wrapped up in getting past their Asperger's that they deny and suppress some of their other traits, and that ultimately leaves them feeling unfulfilled.
In another article I write about how for any broad issue, it's important to keep the good aspects of it and work to get rid of the parts you don't like. It's not an either-or thing. Just because you want to get past some of your social awkwardness, it doesn't mean you have to completely throw away the other stuff too. With Asperger's there's nothing really wrong about, say, looking at the world in a different way, or having different priorities, or being super interested in esoteric topics. I've heard many people with AS say they became a lot happier when they just accepted all these traits, realized they were just a part of who they were, and went with them.
Give the 'Asperger's' label the right amount of power
This is a theme I also tended to see in forums. Some people seem to give the label too much power and use it to excuse their not trying to improve their social skills, or their giving up too early. Their thinking seems to be, "I have Asperger's. I can't do anything. There's no point in trying." In some cases the people who think like this may not be all that motivated to do better socially in the first place, and the label plays right into that.
On the other hand, if you do have Asperger's then you have to respect how it can make socializing harder for you. If you don't you may put unrealistic expectations on yourself and get discouraged when you don't meet them. There's nothing wrong with knowing your limits and working within them. It's the same as how an overweight person and a thin person may approach taking up jogging in different ways. They may both have the potential to become pretty fit after a few years, but they'll take different paths to get there.
There's also the whole issue of how some people may be misdiagnosed, or others may truly have AS, but never formally had a diagnosis applied to them. It emphasizes the importance of evaluating where your social skills stand, and how they may need to change, for their own sake. Regardless of what a label says you should or shouldn't have problems with, it's up to you to evaluate where your personal strengths and weaknesses lie.
Have social skills explained and broken down
This one is pretty obvious. People with Asperger's need to have social situations broken down in detail, and have various approaches and strategies explained to them. The amount of break down and detail they need is often greater than that required by a more typical awkward person as well. I also find it's important to provide them a reason for why social rules and situations are the way they are, rather than just going, "That's just how it is. Don't ask questions." It's easier to adjust to something if you know the rationale behind it.
I think my site may help in that regard. There are plenty of other written sources that do the same thing. Various tools have also been developed to teach social skills to people with AS, such as comic strips that explain how someone may typically be thinking in a certain scenario. Someone could also get this information in a social skills training group, by working with a counselor, or trying to figure things out with friends who are in the same boat.
However, one problem is that there are so many social rules, and variations on how to apply them depending on a huge number of variables, that it's totally impractical to catalog them all. Like I said, there are resources that cover social rules, but there's no master guide that covers everything. Like anyone else, many of the more nuanced or subculture-specific rules they'll have to figure out on their own.
Have a social skills mentor
This person may be a professional therapist or an understanding friend or family member. People with Asperger's benefit from having someone they can go to who will patiently answer and clarify any questions they have about social situations. The 'mentor' can also give feedback on the any conclusions about the social world the person with Asperger's has come to. People with AS can observe and analyze social situations, but arrive at conclusions that aren't quite right. A mentor could tell them if they're on the right track or not, and explain why.
Get tons of real world practice
There are a lot of factors that make it harder for people with Asperger's to pick up social skills. Still, even if the process is going to be slower, they still need lots of practice in the real world. One thing I've noticed is that many socially successful people with Asperger's will speak of growing up with a lot of siblings, or having a good group of friends in high school. Those circumstances just gave them a ton of opportunities to learn, compared to someone who was more isolated.
Adults need to seek out their own practice more. I talk about some places they can do that in this article. Of course, ideally they can work on their social skills with a detached attitude where they see their mistakes as feedback and just part of the learning process, and not a sign they're inherently flawed and will never get better.
Use artificial practice too
Many people with AS get this as kids when they're put into social skills training groups to help them role-play interpersonal situations, or learn to recognize emotions in others. They can specifically work on things that may be tricky to deliberately practice in the messy real world. After providing a formal lesson on some aspect of socializing, these classes typically have their members do various games and exercises to practice the skills.
Adults may benefit from this kind of training as well. For example, they could work with a therapist and work through exercises to practice mingling or small talk. They could join a social skills group for adults if they can find one.
Be open to simpler 'good enough' alternatives to more confusing social rules
Some social situations have an ideal way to handle them that involves knowing a lot of subtle, nuanced unwritten rules, as well as the right times to apply them or not. If you have Asperger's you may find it takes too much effort to get your head around it all. Luckily social situations usually aren't black and white in the sense that anything less than the ideal is a total failure. There may be alternative ways to act that are a bit more crude and simplistic, but which get the job done, don't drain your mental resources, and don't cause too many negative side effects.
For example, it's not ideal to directly ask people you're just getting to know, "Do you want to be friends with me?" That approach will often be viewed as too up front and clumsy. It can put people on the spot. It's seen as how little kids make friends, not adults. However, under the right, hard-to-explain set of circumstances someone could use this question and have everything go fine. A person with Asperger's may decide, "Trying to make friends gradually and with a light touch is too much for me to think about. I've found that once I seem to be getting along with someone asking if they want to be friends does the job well enough. Plus, I accept I'm a direct person who's not always socially perfect, so if anyone is put off by my asking, it's a sign they wouldn't be a good fit for me anyway. Maybe I'll lose a good potential friend here and there with this method, but I can handle that. In the future I may get better at being subtle, but this works for now."
Learn social skills by rote or trial-and-error when you have to
I wasn't totally sure about including this point. I have heard people with Asperger's saying something similar themselves though. A person with Asperger's is missing some of the instinctive understanding that allows most people to easily grasp broad, abstract social rules. Like if you told a typical person, "To have better conversations start sharing more of yourself", they'll probably get the gist of it fairly quickly. Someone with Asperger's may find that hopelessly vague and struggle to put it into practice. Instead they may have to learn how to socialize through a more mechanical, trial-and-error process, where they figure out the types of responses and statements that tend to work in certain situations, even if they have trouble comprehending the more general concepts those correct actions are built from. Of course, this undoubtedly makes acquiring social skills harder for them.
I think to some degree people with AS just have to do the best they can with the rote approach anyway. It absolutely has its limits, but a lot of situations are easier to navigate with the help of a rough script. Even typical people sometimes make small talk by falling back on well-worn routines. With a huge amount of experience someone can even apply this approach to even more complicated conversations. Yeah, it's impossible to have every eventuality mapped out, but over time certain topics and conversations do come up again and again, and even regular people sometimes go, "Oh, she's saying X,Y,Z. Telling her 'I know how you feel' is the way to go here."
Again, this approach has tons of limitations, and if someone can learn a more core principle they should do that instead. Using scripts in a clumsy or overly rigid way will come off as rehearsed and robotic. If someone had a more typical level of social intuition and ability to improvise and think on the spot I wouldn't recommend it. However, if a person has AS and is always going to have to rely on this to a degree, they may as well make the best of it. Even if they get to the point where they can largely make up their conversations as they go, having the ability to sprinkle in the odd bit of scripted behavior never hurts.
Possibly tell other people about your Asperger's
This one has its pros and cons. I think it's getting a little more feasible though as more and more people learn about what Asperger's is. The positive aspects are that if other people know you have it, they can be more understanding and adjust their expectations accordingly. They may also be better able to help you with your social skills. Naturally the negative side is that some people won't understand, think even worse of you, or get the wrong idea about what the condition means. Some people may also have a justifiable wariness towards telling anyone about their diagnosis at their job.