Autistic-friendly social skills vs. blending in with NT's

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Mona Pereth
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09 Mar 2021, 8:00 am

Vito wrote:
I don’t want to offend anybody, but it appears to me that this discussion omits one important aspect of social interaction – the fact that the behavioral patterns that NTs expect from others are primarily aimed at making others feel comfortable and important. Consider eye contact in 1-on-1 conversation. In comparison with the verbal content, eye contact conveys very little additional information value to the participant and for that purpose it’s unnecessary;

It apparently does convey significant information about the person's state of mind, for those who can read it, which some of us can and some of us can't.

Vito wrote:
its main purpose (it seems to me) is to make the speaker feel important by conveying that what he says matters to the listener.

Here's the problem, though. For many autistic people, eye contact is a big distraction. So we have a choice between looking like we're listening (by making eye contact) and actually listening (paying real attention to the content of what the person is saying). Here's a short humorous video about this dilemma.

To some extent, eye contact is distracting even for NT's, which is why even NT's don't stare continuously into each other's eyes.

Vito wrote:
I therefore think that instant of trying to “blend in” with the NTs, much more sensible strategy for NDs is to learn the kind of social skills that make people around you feel important and comfortable. The thing is that most NTs are actually decent people who tend to naturally reciprocate positive behavior. Furthermore, majority of people tend to be quite forgiving when dealing with odd behavior of someone they like and accept so learning those social skills eventually pays off.

As for the particular social skills themselves, I think that it is much better to focus on modifying your own behavior and body language based on the type of social situation you’re in rather than on the perceived mood and body language of the other person. The thing is, the variability of types of social situations encountered in everyday life is relatively small and as such it is not that difficult to learn and practice blueprints of acceptable behaviors for every single type of these situations.

Personally, I made a considerable progress in my social interactions after I started to learn and apply social skills described in How to Make Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which deals with patterns of behavior that are aimed at making other people feel important, and body language as described by Joe Navarro in What Every BODY Is Saying, which, among other things, raises the important point of what gestures and body postures are perceived as accommodating and make others feel comfortable. The thing is, most of the behavioral patterns outlined in those books can be memorized and applied relatively easily irrespective of the individual’s ability to read emotions and body language of others. Furthermore, learning those patterns can give you significant advantage over many NTs in social interactions. You would be surprised how many NTs do not follow the patterns outlined in these books, even though they’re clearly advantageous (consider how majority of people criticize others, are underappreciative, etc.). I could elaborate more on this point, but the post would be too long, I’m afraid.

I agree that being appreciative is important, and, yes, there are scripts that are good enough for most everyday interactions. And, yes, learning such scripts could certainly improve one's life if one didn't already know them.

However, many of us would still have difficulties, e.g. due to attention issues, that can't be handled by just learning scripts, e.g. the eye contact issue as described above, and also the difficulties many of us have with unfocused chit chat involving more than two people. Many of us also have difficulty with picking up on subtle hints.


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SharonB
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09 Mar 2021, 9:43 am

Mona Pereth wrote:
Vito wrote:
For many autistic people, eye contact is a big distraction. So we have a choice between looking like we're listening (by making eye contact) and actually listening (paying real attention to the content of what the person is saying). Here's a short humorous video about this dilemma.

To some extent, eye contact is distracting even for NT's, which is why even NT's don't stare continuously into each other's eyes.

I completely relate to that video. I make eye contact. I stare. I don't know that I verbally process everything regardless of what type of eye contact I make. Would looking away help? Maybe, then I could repeat back to myself everything being said.

Mona Pereth wrote:
However, many of us would still have difficulties, e.g. due to attention issues, that can't be handled by just learning scripts

One of my big faux pas was when I was looking for a way to say good-bye to my sister's midwife. I came up with a cheery "...see you again soon!" My sister flipped her lid. She thought I was inviting myself to her labor and was beside herself with my presumptuousness. I was without ASD awareness at the time with my type of difficulties, so was shamed and quiet. If it happened again, I would at least explain my good intention. This was over a decade ago and I still have a tightness in my chest thinking about it: my sister long ago decided I was offensive and it hangs over my head. If I witnessed a person saying that with genuine cheer, I would recognize their good intention and not extrapolate to nefarious intentions.



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09 Mar 2021, 2:14 pm

SharonB wrote:
One of my big faux pas was when I was looking for a way to say good-bye to my sister's midwife. I came up with a cheery "...see you again soon!" My sister flipped her lid. She thought I was inviting myself to her labor and was beside herself with my presumptuousness. I was without ASD awareness at the time with my type of difficulties, so was shamed and quiet. If it happened again, I would at least explain my good intention. This was over a decade ago and I still have a tightness in my chest thinking about it: my sister long ago decided I was offensive and it hangs over my head. If I witnessed a person saying that with genuine cheer, I would recognize their good intention and not extrapolate to nefarious intentions.

Did you ever try to have a conversation about this incident with your sister later, after you became aware of ASD? Or is there some reason why such a conversation would not be a good idea?

In any case it seems odd to me for someone to be offended by the idea of a family member wanting to be in the vicinity during (or at least immediately before and after) a medical procedure. I thought most people liked having family members visit them in the hospital or wherever. All the more so would I expect this to be appreciated in a situation that does not involve a disease, but rather the birth of a much-awaited child.

Is your sister unusually sensitive on privacy issues? Was she ever in any way seriously abused by other family members? Or perhaps she had issues with her parents meddling in her relationship with her husband/partner?


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09 Mar 2021, 8:24 pm

^^^ Mona, I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the matter.

I became aware of ASD just over a year ago. I've been thinking to email her and explain some incidents, but am concerned that any overture of mine would fuel her scorn and disgust. My family dynamic was such that my ASD-like mom and NT-like sister blamed (and still blame) me for any discord. I am just beginning to break that dynamic with my mom, but have not with my sister. From what I can tell my sister lacks empathy, but her friends say she is so kind and amazing - so maybe it's something she directs at me, her daughter and folks like us.

She sees me as our parents' golden child. I see her as an equal, and have said so, which I suspect she interpreted as further evidence of my condescension. She was sexually assaulted as a young teen and my parents' separation interrupted her career pursuit. She scoffs at the idea that I have any difficulty in life (and I have had many, so it's weird). It's an abusive dynamic. I just got out of a hostile workplace, so apparently I have "easy mark" stamped on my forehead that way (darned if I assert myself, darned if I don't). I know I put my backbone someplace here...



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10 Mar 2021, 10:44 am

I'm very sorry to hear about your family situation. I'm glad there has been some progress between you and you mother. I hope it continues.


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10 Mar 2021, 11:44 am

An aside re "eye contact": When I was young I was taught it was polite to look at people when I talked with them.

No one said anything about looking into their eyes.

My impression is that this has worked for me. (Only being an issue in a very few instances.)


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10 Mar 2021, 6:27 pm

Double Retired wrote:
An aside re "eye contact": When I was young I was taught it was polite to look at people when I talked with them.

No one said anything about looking into their eyes.

Same here. I remember my mother telling me to look at her, but not to look into her eyes.

Apparently, here in the U.S.A. at least, eye contact became a much bigger deal sometime in the 1970's or early 1980's or so than it was earlier. The first time I can remember someone complaining about my lack of eye contact was sometime in the early 1980's.

Back in the late 1960's, on the other hand, "look into my eyes" was something said by vampires on Dark Shadows, and not by anyone in real life that I knew of.

My boyfriend, who grew up in California, tells me that eye contact is a much bigger deal on the West Coast than on the East Coast. Apparently, on the West Coast more so than on the East Coast, a lot of people have the attitude that anyone who can't maintain eye contact must be untrustworthy.

Double Retired wrote:
My impression is that this has worked for me. (Only being an issue in a very few instances.)

Personally I'm not even able to notice, much less control, what my eyes are doing, at all, when I get deep into conversation. I make brief eye contact at the beginning of a conversation, but then my brain disengages from all visual stimuli so I can focus just on the content of the conversation.


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10 Mar 2021, 6:52 pm

The encounters where I can recall avoiding eye contact becoming an issue for me both involved people who, for professional reasons, were studying my behavior and reactions.

The early encounters apparently lead them to believe I was being dishonest and evasive. I was, in fact, being quite honest with them. Their failure to recognize that made me question their competence (though not to their face).

The later encounters definitely contributed to me being declared an Aspie. The later encounters were definitely funnier, too.

Looking into someone's eyes just feels too intimate to me. From what you say, I'll consider this to be yet another reason I'm glad I'm from the East. (Oh, being a very strong INTJ might have helped, too.)


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13 Mar 2021, 9:54 am

Thank you, Mona, for the response, and especially for the video link - it's humorous, relatable and also shows an important point that I will mention below. I apologize in advance for a very lengthy response. I generally have trouble with keeping my written communication concise and tend to go into too much detail.

Mona Pereth wrote:
It apparently does convey significant information about the person's state of mind, for those who can read it, which some of us can and some of us can't.


I don't know about that, really, as I haven't progressed much beyond recognizing few basic emotions from the state of other person's eyes. Though my mother-in-law has almost a mentalist-like proficiency in judging people's mental state and intentions just from observing them. So, I agree there may be something to it. However, my point is that for the purpose of conducting the conversation, the ability to read the information from eye contact is markedly less relevant than what is being said. And more importantly, that this ability is less relevant for the proper flow of the conversation than merely maintaining the eye contact itself.

Mona Pereth wrote:
Here's the problem, though. For many autistic people, eye contact is a big distraction. So we have a choice between looking like we're listening (by making eye contact) and actually listening (paying real attention to the content of what the person is saying). Here's a short humorous video about this dilemma.


That's very true, but I'm of the opinion that in comparison with subtler forms of body language, the eye contact is relatively straightforward, so that when learning it, a person must basically only observe the time the other person looks into their eyes and adjust her gaze accordingly in order to more or less match it. Also, when you practice it often, the process becomes eventually automatic, so that you stop thinking about it.

I, for example, trained it mechanically so that when the other person looks into my eyes, I reciprocate and when the other person looks away, I also look away. Initially, it was difficult to do so simultaneously while listening and comprehending the content and for example my wife frequently stopped talking mid-sentence with "Why are you staring at my mouth?" interjection as my eyes tended to focus more on her mouth than on her eyes when I started to pay too much attention to what she is saying. Over time as I practiced being conscious about the eye contact, it became quite normal and eventually automatic, so that now I can be fully focused on the content of the conversation.

I would liken it to learning how to drive a car with a manual gearbox. Initially, all you can think about is how to press the pedals, turn the wheel and operate the stick. As a result, you hardly can pay attention to the road and traffic around you and are likely to crash. That's why (at least in a country I'm from), you have an instructor with you for the duration of the compulsory driver school training, who is there to help you to evaluate the situation and traffic around you and in case of need, to take over. Over time, however, as you practice, you eventually start to automatize all of the essential actions necessary for operating the vehicle and as a result you can concentrate more on the situation around you and drive much more safely. Also, at that point, driving becomes much less mentally taxing.

If a person is unable to learn how to maintain a proper eye contact while maintaining a conversation at the same time, same approach can be used as in the driving school - to get an instructor (relative, friend, therapist, etc.) and practice the skill in a safe environment where the outcome of the conversation is irrelevant. Over time, as the skill is automatized, she can focus more on the content of the conversation itself and eventually start applying it in "live" conversations.

That person should keep in mind, however, that the main objective is the successful conduct of the conversation itself, not the excellence in performing the individual components of the associated body language. That is precisely the point the video you linked makes - the guy there focuses so much on the body language associated with conversation that he fails to conduct the conversation itself. In my driving the car analogy, he would probably focus so much on how to hold the steering wheel and how to properly operate the clutch and stick that he would eventually run over a pedestrian.

The correct thing here would be for him to focus primarily on the content of the conversation and secondarily not more than one of the aspects of the body language in question. The result would be probably quite awkward, but the conversation would likely get conducted with respect to the end desired by the other person, who actually started the conversation with a clear aim to communicate something. Also, repeating the process (focusing primarily on the content and secondarily on one aspect of the body language) many times in different conversations would enable the guy to eventually master the particular aspect of the body language and he could move to another one. That’s incidentally how I learned it: 1. Listening and response. -> 2. Eye contact. -> 3. Body posture -> 4. Head position -> 5. Hand position -> 6. Facial expressions. Currently I’m trying to be more aware of the other person’s facial expressions and being able to adjust my body language and flow of conversation accordingly.

Mona Pereth wrote:
To some extent, eye contact is distracting even for NT's, which is why even NT's don't stare continuously into each other's eyes.


To be honest, I don't think that it's the case. Joe Navarro (author of one of the books I've referenced), explains that eye contact is related to the concept of a personal space. Prolonged stare is perceived as an invasion of personal space similar to getting too close to the person in a physical sense. The response of the other person is then linked to social circumstances of the situation. For example, if I’d stare for a more than a few seconds at a woman in the subway who does not know me, she will likely feel uncomfortable or even threatened and will either leave or respond defensively. If I’d stare like that at the receptionist in our office with whom I am on friendly terms, she’s probably going to feel curious why I am looking at her and respond with something like “What is it?” or “Do you want something?”. Finally, if I will stare like that at my wife, she’s likely to interpret it very positively as a sign of interest and respond with some sort of flirtatious behavior.
I therefore think that the intensity of eye contact during a conversation is closely linked to the abovementioned concept, and too much intensity would be interpreted as an encroachment upon the personal space. As such, it has nothing to do with being distracting, but it’s a question of personal space and comfort. For instance, I observe differences in intensity of eye contact when having a lunch with a business partner, as opposed to having a romantic dinner with my wife.

Mona Pereth wrote:
I agree that being appreciative is important, and, yes, there are scripts that are good enough for most everyday interactions. And, yes, learning such scripts could certainly improve one's life if one didn't already know them.
However, many of us would still have difficulties, e.g. due to attention issues, that can't be handled by just learning scripts, e.g. the eye contact issue as described above, and also the difficulties many of us have with unfocused chit chat involving more than two people. Many of us also have difficulty with picking up on subtle hints.


Yes, and it is understandable that many of us will have those difficulties. I mean, social situations are complex in themselves and, judging from the popularity of the books I’ve listed, difficult even for the NTs. So, it is logical that people who lack (in some degree) the abilities required for correct deciphering and processing of these situations will be considerably disadvantaged at learning them. However, what I want to get across is that 1. These skills are worth learning. 2. People should focus more on skills that are easier to learn and offer higher payoff-to-learning difficulty ratio (i.e. focusing on developing on proper responses to basic situations in order to make others feel more important and comfortable around them instead of trying to blend in). Also, I’d like to note that: 3. These skills can be learnt one at the time and combined together only when a certain degree of proficiency is achieved in some of them.


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13 Mar 2021, 11:22 am

SharonB wrote:
One of my big faux pas was when I was looking for a way to say good-bye to my sister's midwife. I came up with a cheery "...see you again soon!" My sister flipped her lid. She thought I was inviting myself to her labor and was beside herself with my presumptuousness. I was without ASD awareness at the time with my type of difficulties, so was shamed and quiet. If it happened again, I would at least explain my good intention. This was over a decade ago and I still have a tightness in my chest thinking about it: my sister long ago decided I was offensive and it hangs over my head. If I witnessed a person saying that with genuine cheer, I would recognize their good intention and not extrapolate to nefarious intentions.


To be frank, I do not perceive this as a big social faux pas but rather a relatively small misunderstanding. However, it sort of illustrates a point that I was trying to make earlier. If such misunderstanding would happen between you and someone that likes you, it would most likely be perceived as amusing, eliciting a laugh and/or gentle correction. However, as your relationship with your sister was already a bit strained (at least based on the info you provided in further posts), it was perceived as presumptuous and offensive.

Please note that I’m not in any way trying to imply that you are responsible for the outcome of the situation or for the strained relationship with your sister, I’m merely trying to illustrate my earlier claim that people tend to be more forgiving towards people they like, than towards people they don’t.


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13 Mar 2021, 5:06 pm

^^ Yes, mutual respect can be beneficial in these situations.

"A relatively small misunderstanding". I can see that. I wish I had known how to correct it. There are so many misunderstandings. With ASDs it's easier to clarify, but with NTs it seems to make it worse. Two conversations just this last week:

DETAILS

Child's OT (occupational therapist): How was this week? (for my child)
Me: I don't remember.
Child's OT: Then she had a good week!
Me: It's not that she did or didn't. I had a crisis before this appointment and I can't remember the week.
Child's OT (to child): Did you have a good week?
Child: I don't remember.
Child's OT: Then she had a good week...
Me: (silence)
OT REPORT: Child had a good week.

Later I recalled my child had her worst anxiety yet that week which motivated me to contact her principal to request an evaluation from the county. I guess the therapist was right that it was "good": hopefully we'll have future resources. Does the OT report matter? Probably not. Maybe. I don't know.

Yesterday a government official gave me her email address. I knew I wasn't understanding, but she kept saying "yes" "yes" "yes" even when I spelled parts differently. In the end, I got it wrong (my email didn't get to her). Now for another 30-60 minutes to call back or spend that time making more guesses. I heard her say her last name was "Marin" and she worked at "Faate.us.gov" (and I spelled both M-A-R-I-N, F-A-A-T-E and she said "yes") --- I did figure out for myself that she must work at "State.us.gov". Maybe "Marin" is actually "Martin"? I can try. It just seems so hard.

SUMMARY THOUGHT: Perhaps (1) would have said something a different way or heard something more clearly (or less clearly as the case may be: made the correct assumption) and (2) NTs don't mind misunderstandings so much b/c they can figure it out, redo it, accept it --- no sweat.



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13 Mar 2021, 7:07 pm

SharonB wrote:
SUMMARY THOUGHT: Perhaps (1) would have said something a different way or heard something more clearly (or less clearly as the case may be: made the correct assumption) and (2) NTs don't mind misunderstandings so much b/c they can figure it out, redo it, accept it --- no sweat.


Or it can be (3) a case of couple of thick government officials. I don't know about the US, but here in Czechia the low ranking government officials are generally pretty badly paid in comparison with the private sector. In consequence, they generally tend to be, to put it tactfully, not the sharpest knives in the drawer, if you get my drift.

The OT also seems to be keen only on writing something neutral in the report and get it over with ASAP, which is also a typical feature of such officials. Just do the minimum you have to and go home. No need to worry about the consequences.


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14 Mar 2021, 12:41 pm

I like your clear cut perspective. Simple, to the point. LOL (friendly)

I have a saying: (Many times) I make complex things simple.... and (sometimes) I make simple things complex.



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29 Mar 2021, 4:21 pm

Responding to OP: you just perfectly described the ground rules in our house as two married autistics. They make a big difference and are things we have always done some of with eachother but structuring it is still helpful as arguments happen and these rules keep things civil and prevent misunderstandings. Personally I stuggle most with active listening and my husband stuggles more with assertiveness but through hard work we have come to much greater balance.



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10 Apr 2021, 12:31 am

Glad I had rediscovered this discussion thread.

It seems fitting to set concrete objectives proven helpful regarding High Functioning Autism (HFA) - to "break the ice" so to speak (after the pandemic is under control). To become acquainted with people experienced with successful AS/NT friendships. And yes, "this is easier said than done!"

Enclosed is a LINK to a WP discussion thread on how arts orientated activities might just "break the ice" - that is encouragement to participate in small group settings with NT people experienced with the Autism Spectrum, as well as people with HFA - hence settings ripe for establishing AS/NT friendships.

As of this writing, this WP discussion thread received a few responses. LINK: Can Creating Art "Break The Ice" - Encouraging Friendships? viewtopic.php?t=395602