Ways Adults With Less-Severe Autism Spectrum Disorder / Asperger's Syndrome Can Improve Their Social Skills

People with less-severe Autism Spectrum Disorder* (ASD) have a harder time in social situations, but they can get much better at them. They can be pretty far behind when they begin, and improvements may come slowly, but at least some people with ASD 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. Below is my synthesis of the broad principles that help them improve their social skills the most.

(* An older term for the same condition is Asperger's Syndrome. Some people still use it, but it's increasingly seen as an outdated label.)

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 various social skills training groups, and this never seems to come up. However, when I look at online spaces about ASD and social skills it's an issue I constantly see the members struggling with.

People on the autism spectrum 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, for all kinds of reasons:

I think before diving into a program to try to improve their social skills, it would help someone with ASD to really explore how they feel about socializing and what they want from it, and get their thoughts and motivations straightened out and in the open. If everything is clear they can make an informed decision about how they want to proceed. 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 with ASD may think about all this and come to the conclusion that they're honestly bitter about the idea of improving their social skills, and don't actually want to do it. That's valid, and they can plan accordingly. Maybe they'll try to get past their bitterness, or perhaps they'll try to arrange their day-to-day life so they don't have to be around people 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. 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 ASD seem to fall into the pragmatic mold, where they make 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 that are important to them. The other type of successful person with ASD 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 ASD-ish traits

Some people on the autism spectrum 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 put their interpersonal challenges behind them. What can happen though is their self-esteem gets so wrapped up in getting past their autism-related social limitations 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 ASD there's nothing really wrong about, say, looking at the world in a unique way, or having different priorities, or being super interested in esoteric topics. I've heard many people with ASD say they became a lot happier when they just accepted these things, realized they were just a part of who they were, and went with them.

Give the "autism"' label the right amount of power

Some autistic people seem to give the diagnosis too much power and use it to excuse their not trying to improve their social skills, or giving up too early. Their thinking is, "I have an autism diagnosis. I can't do anything socially. 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're on the autism spectrum 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 ASD, 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.

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Have social skills explained and broken down

This one is pretty obvious. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder need to have social situations broken down in detail, and have various approaches and strategies explained to them. The amount of breakdown and detail they need is often greater than that required by someone who's awkward, but neurologically typical. 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 hope this site may help in that regard. There are plenty of other websites, books, and videos that cover the topic. Various tools have also been developed to teach social skills to people with ASD, such as comic strips that explain how someone may typically be thinking in a certain scenario. Someone could also get the needed knowledge 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. Yes, there are resources that cover common social rules, but there's no master guide that covers everything. Many of the more nuanced or subculture-specific rules have to be figured out by first hand observation or trial and error.

Have a social skills mentor

This person may be a professional therapist or an understanding friend or family member. People with ASD 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 any conclusions about the social world the person with ASD has come to. People on the spectrum can observe and analyze social situations, but arrive at conclusions that aren't quite correct. A mentor can tell them if they're on the right track or not, and explain why.

Get tons of real world practice

People with ASD have a trickier time picking up social skills. Still, even if the process is going to be slower, they still need lots of practice in the real world. I've noticed many socially successful people with autism 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 often need to consciously seek ways to practice. 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 ASD 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 hire a therapist and work through exercises to practice mingling or small talk. They could join a social skills group for adults, if there's one in their area.

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 ASD 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 ASD 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

Being on the autism spectrum means 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 get the gist of it fairly quickly. Someone with ASD 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. Going this route undoubtedly is more difficult and takes longer.

I think to some degree people with ASD just have to do the best they can with the rote approach. 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 use well-worn routines. They ask the same handful of small talk questions at every party, or use canned supportive lines when a friend is bereaved and they don't know what to say. With a huge amount of experience someone with ASD may even be able to apply a scripted approach to more-complicated conversations. Yeah, it's impossible to have every eventuality mapped out, but over time certain topics do come up again and again, so why not have some material prepared?

Though as I said, rote memorization only goes so far. Using scripts in a clumsy or overly-rigid way will come off as rehearsed and robotic. Whenever possible, someone should try to learn the broader social principles that help them think on their feet. However, if someone has ASD and is always going to have to rely on memorization 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 reliable bit of scripted behavior never hurts.

Possibly tell other people that you're on the autism spectrum

This one has its pros and cons. I think it's getting a more-feasible by the day, as more people learn about Autism Spectrum Disorder. The positives are that if other people know you have ASD, 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. It's justifiable that someone would be cautious about telling anyone about their diagnosis at their job.