Thursday, April 18, 2013

How to Be Socially Awkward, or, What I Learned In Social Skills Class

N. M. Silber

We want April -- Autism Acceptance Month -- to matter, to help further acceptance and understanding of autistic experiences, happiness, and rights for autistic people of all ages and abilities. We will be publishing your Autism Acceptance posts and pictures all month long. If you want to participate, contact us at thinkingautism at gmail dot com. -TPGA Editors

Warning: snark ahead.

Over the years many people have “explained” the autism spectrum to me, for which I owe them a debt of gratitude. Without their thoughtful help I would never have guessed that I was cognitively impaired and lacked empathy. Who knew that I would never grasp the subtleties of language or concepts, like irony, sarcasm, or satire?

More than anything, though, I deeply appreciate how their expertise helped to blend in flawlessly in social situations. Rather than just staying at home and doing things that make me happy, like reading or writing about subjects I like (being socially isolated and fixated on obsessive interests), I can instead engage in meaningless conversation with people who I don’t know well or like very much (socialize appropriately). I have a whole list of conversation starters in my pocket and I’m ready to mingle, baby!

There’s only one snag that I have run into so far, the fact that apart from other Autistic people, nobody else has had social skills training. Time and again I seem to encounter people who have not learned that when I approach them (with a smile and good eye contact, making sure that my body is facing them and I am standing at an appropriate distance), that they are supposed to turn toward me and pause their conversation so that I can use one of the “openings” that I diligently practiced. They also don’t know that they are supposed to warmly welcome me when I toss out (in a carefully slowed down and not overly-loud voice),  my “Hey guys” or “What are you guys doing?” Amazingly enough, some of them even seem to find this type of thing a little awkward, or even creepy, coming from a complete stranger.

I’m sure that it has nothing at all to do with anything like the realistic quality of the scripted conversations that I memorized.  After all, they were created by  experts who clearly must have known a great deal about the dynamics of social interaction -- especially back when I was a teen attempting to interact with other teens and those experts were so much older and wiser. I suppose I’ll just have to chalk it up to coincidence.

It’s not that I have been systematically taught to be even more socially awkward than I already was, it’s simply that everyone I have ever approached and been rejected by has been an undiagnosed autistic person in need of appropriate social skills training.

Previously published at