Autism and Social Interaction

 As we all know communication happens in various social contexts and settings. You’ll probably communicate in a number of settings like healthcare, education, workplace and social settings. You likely won’t interact the same way with a classmate or colleague that you would with a teacher or manager. These contexts are always changing as we grow and develop throughout our lives. The DSM-5 criteria for autism lists differences in social interaction as one of two main traits of autism. This means that although autism is a spectrum of experiences, autistic people will more likely than not find social interaction challenging. Though no experience is common to every autistic individual, many struggle with idle conversation and ‘small talk’,’ which can result in problems in maintaining relationships.  In the past, Autism professionals would describe this difference in terms of ‘social skills’ that autistic people must learn. However, framing social interaction in terms of skills and challenges fails to understand how autistic people communicate and interact with each other.

How an Autism Diagnosis can affect social interaction

It is important to remember that autistic people often approach non-verbal communication differently in comparison to neurotypical individuals. They may not use or interpret hand gestures the same way as a neurotypical person. Due to differences in eye contact, an autistic person might look away from the person they are speaking to. This can be confusing for those who are not used to speaking with autistic people.  

Secondly, autistic people are likely to be comforted by routine and predictability. Conversations with new people may be intimidating, especially if they happen in an unfamiliar environment. For example, an autistic person may be adept at interacting in a classroom or workplace but might not know how to approach someone at a party or a sports game.

  Thirdly, autistic people are often direct and straightforward in how they communicate, avoiding generic conversation topics in favour of topics they find meaningful. This can result in giving an impression of bluntness or disinterest.

Supporting autistic people in social interaction

As discussed in our other sections on the website, how autism is understood has changed a lot over the last few decades, including social interaction. Experts previously asserted that autistic people had impairments in empathy or even had no interest in socialising. As a result, Autism supports were based on the idea that autistic people lacked social skills and needed to learn the ‘right’ way to interact.   However, the commonly perceived notion that autistic people have no ‘Theory of Mind,’ is now being challenged.

Damian Milton’s Double Empathy problem notes empathy is a two-way interaction. Non-autistic people struggle to understand the emotions of autistic people just as much as the other way round. The difficulty may lie in how people with different ways of experiencing the world interact.  Supporting autistic people to socialise, therefore, should bear this two-way process in mind. On a practical level: the best way to help is to identify which elements of social interaction are the most challenging for the person in question. If their difficulty lies in non-verbal cues or gestures, it might be helpful to make certain things more explicit through visual guides or narratives. 

If they have difficulty with initiating conversation, try to rehearse certain social scripts, with different scripts for different contexts.  Autistic people should be encouraged to practice these interactions and reflect on how they went. This allows them to decide which strategies work best for them. Supporting an autistic person in socializing should be about empowering them to express themselves and their needs authentically. It should not be teaching them to self-censor or feel there is something wrong with them for not wanting to talk about certain subjects. Try to look at social interaction through a ‘salad bar’ approach. Do not hand someone a set of rules: present them with options and let them choose themselves.    

How can non-autistic people communicate more clearly with their autistic peers?

As mentioned above, autistic people may require help in refining certain social skills, but the onus should not entirely be on them. Whether it is as a teacher, manager or even parent, neurotypical people should try to meet autistic people halfway when socializing.   If you find that an autistic person is not responding to certain cues, try putting your language into words and making your thoughts and feelings more explicit. For example, ‘these boxes are very heavy’ might be a clue to some people, but try saying ‘could you help me carry these’ to make your intentions clearer.

This goes the same for non-verbal cues: tapping a watch may be a recognized sign of time running out, but informing the person will always be clearer. Autistic people often avoid eye contact due to the sensory overload this produces. If they are looking away while speaking or listening, it’s likely they are doing this to concentrate fully on the interaction. Do not attempt to force eye contact from them: this will probably be a source of distress.  It is a common misconception that autistic people do not want social interaction or friendship. In reality, the challenges of social interaction can be intimidating or a source of anxiety for autistic people. 

Part of the friendship is that autistic person, but the other part is the person they spend time with. We need to think about both sides. All the work should not be done by the autistic person to make a social connection. Neurotypical peers should try to learn more about autism, specifically about their autistic peer. Try to learn what their interests are; this is always a sure way to get them talking.  This does not mean you cannot express upset or offence in social interaction. It means changing the way you communicate this. Autistic people are just as capable of anyone else of being impolite or inconsiderate.

If something an autistic person does or says upsets you, consider the following. Why are you upset? Is this related to a social convention they know they are not following? Is it a voluntary action or part of a stim?  Weigh up each of these possibilities. If this is due to an involuntary action or stim, telling them to stop may make them feel self-conscious or anxious. If you are sure this isn’t the case, express how you feel about what they are doing. However, you should question whether what they are doing is harmful to others, or just making you uncomfortable. It is possible what you consider unusual or impolite might be subjective. Remember that the rules of social interaction are norms not laws.   .   

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