Autistic folks may navigate the world and social interactions in a different way. That doesn’t mean they don’t have social skills.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) varies in how it may affect an individual. But the way folks communicate, hold, and build relationships are common pieces of social interaction that are often affected.
Because social communication and interaction can be an area that proves difficult for many neurodivergent folks, autistic people often find it difficult to keep up with back-and-forth conversations, engage in group settings, and build relationships.
Neurotypical and neurodivergent
In the medical world, “neurotypical” refers to someone with “typical” developmental, cognitive, or intellectual abilities.
On the other hand, “neurodivergent” generally refers to “atypical” developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities or behaviors. It may refer to autistic people, but could also be used for other conditions, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning disorders.
Still, there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to think, behave, or learn. People experience and interact with their surroundings in different ways. So, being “neurodivergent” doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with you.
Sonny Jane, consultant and lived experience educator, speaks to previous understandings about autism and its effect on social skills. According to Jane, it was once thought that autistic folks lacked social skills, but they point to research showing that the social skills are just different.
“It’s not that being autistic affects our social skills. It’s that being autistic means we have a different way of socializing that needs to be understood and accommodated. Often, things we see as social skills are neurotypical expectations or rules like making eye contact or making small talk,” they say.
Social ‘norms’ and cues
A social norm generally refers to something that society or culture renders “normal.” Everyone is expected to automatically understand and adhere to these unwritten rules, and diverging from the “norm” may be considered “abnormal.”
Social norms are culturally bound — people from different cultures may have unique sets of norms. In some cases, what’s considered a social norm in one country may go against social norms in a different country.
An example of a social norm in the United States is that avoiding eye contact is often interpreted as evasive, nervous, odd, or “shifty.” As autistic folks often avoid eye contact, neurotypical people may interpret their behavior as going against the “norm.”
Other examples of social interactions or skills that neurotypical folks tend to find commonplace include:
- back-and-forth conversation and “small talk”
- the concept of sarcasm
- the concept of socially accepted “manners”
- communication that uses both verbal and nonverbal cues
Because autistic folks engage with the world around them in a way that’s different from nonautistic folks, conversation across divergences can prove challenging.
According to the
- not looking directly at others
- responding to someone calling their name or other verbal attempts to get their attention slowly or not at all
- finding it difficult to keep up with ongoing conversation or engaging in “small talk”
- not realizing that others are disinterested in a subject they’re talking about
An example of a recurring glitch in communication that mirrors a problemed social skill is the idea of indirect communication.
This is akin to the idea of subtext or reading between the lines — all ways of saying or implying something without actually saying it but expecting the other party to be on the same page.
This communication is commonplace for neurotypical folks, effectively making it an expected social skill. However, autistic folks tend to be more direct and may experience more ease in social communication when that is reciprocated.
Jane says this lack of direct conversation can lead to assumptions about what the autistic person really meant and can also result in ruffled feathers due to frank responses being unexpected.
Jane speaks to the double empathy problem, which suggests that people with different world experiences may find it difficult to empathize with one other. The theory explains the common complication in relationship building between autistic and nonautistic folks.
It’s important to keep in mind that relationship barriers exist on both sides due to a lack of understanding.
Another misconception is that only autistic folks experience barriers in social interactions, which is a perspective that’s both othering and inaccurate.
Empathy is a two-way process that depends on social expectations and our way of thinking, doing, and processing. It’s about understanding the experience of another person.
These parts can be difficult to do with folks who have different ways of understanding the world, so it can be challenging for people on either end to communicate and understand each other.
“Neurotypical folks can recognize that someone may communicate differently to their peers and support them and their peers in understanding each other’s communication style,” Jane says.
This includes not forcing your understanding of social norms onto another person, including eye contact, stimming, and aiming to lead with understanding after receiving blunt responses.
There are varying perspectives on best handling social skills or relationship-building challenges.
- teaching life-skills
- reducing “challenging” behaviors
- learning social, communication, and language skills
- fostering and building upon strengths
Jane pushes back against forcing clinical intervention or therapies as a response to different social skills, saying that this — while unintended and often indirect — can lead to the punishment of autistic folks.
They share that when it comes to supporting an autistic person, productive foci (without the presence of clinical intervention) could be:
- problem-solving skills
There are understood limitations even for those who are proponents of clinical interventions or social skill-based therapies.
This includes both the level of intervention intensity needed to attempt to shift a person’s understanding of communication and the fact that this could just result in masking — performing neurotypical behaviors to remain safe or fit in — versus understanding.
Instead, Jane says that social understanding should be the focus.
“We should promote and teach social understanding over social skills as it allows autistic individuals to make an intentional choice when it comes to socializing rather than forcing compliance or masking,” they say.
Because ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that may affect communication and responses to sensory input, autistic folks have a different way of navigating the world, including social interactions.
Rather than assuming that neurodivergent folks are without social skills, it’s important to remember that the challenges that can arise through attempted communication and relationship building can occur from either party — regardless of neurodivergence (or lack thereof.)
How to best handle difficulties with social skills as an autistic person seems to be up for debate. Still, professionals agree that the best options are safe environments where self-advocacy is front and center.
Consider reaching out to a couple of medical professionals for varied viewpoints on how to proceed if you or your child are interested in receiving support.