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Help for the Socially-Awkward Aspie

Are you unsociable? I don’t mean in the sense that you are “criminal-minded” and out to get people or do them harm. I mean do you feel awkward in many social situations, and as a result, attempt to avoid many interpersonal encounters. If you answered yes, you’ve got plenty of company -- almost half of all adults with Aspergers (High Functioning Autism) consider themselves "unsociable."

Unsociability (to coin the term) in Aspergers adults, teens, and children is a form of excessive self-focus (i.e., a preoccupation with your thoughts, feelings and physical reactions). When I talk about unsociability, I am talking about three characteristics that involve a sense of self:
  1. excessive negative self-evaluation
  2. excessive negative self-preoccupation
  3. excessive self-consciousness

Although many Aspies of all ages experience unsociability, the effects of it -- from mild social awkwardness to totally inhibiting social phobia -- can have a severe impact on real-life situations (e.g., finding and advancing in a job, developing close personal relationships, etc.). Unsociable Aspies experience difficulty meeting people, initiating and maintaining conversations, deepening intimacy, interacting in small groups and in authority situations, and with asserting themselves.

Aspies who live with ongoing unsociability don't take advantage of social situations, date less, are less expressive verbally and non-verbally, and show less interest in other people than those who are more sociable. As a result, unsociable Aspies may find difficulty asserting themselves in the workplace and in interpersonal interactions.

Unsociability tends to manifest itself during periods of change, which came in many forms as the child with Aspergers was growing up. Having problems in school, with bullies, with parents, with teachers and peers – it’s during these periods of transition that unsociability kicks-in as a coping mechanism for the young Aspie as he attempts to protect himself. There are almost as many different stories about why a young person with Aspergers became unsociable as there are Aspies.

Although unsociability varies from person to person, there are commonalties that help define how unsociability works:

1. Unsociable individuals avoid situations that involve interaction with others, particularly strangers or authority figures (called "approach avoidance"). Unsociable Aspies truly want to be social, but for some reason, they feel like they can’t. And that’s the typical pain of unsociability -- when they want something they can’t have.

2. Unsociable Aspies tend to be slow to warm up in social situations. They may go to an event and stay 10 minutes, then leave. They haven’t given themselves enough time to warm up -- they need to stay longer. One mistake unsociable Aspies make is, if a party starts at 8 p.m., they’ll go at 9 p.m. But showing up late actually works to their disadvantage. They should show up early, maybe at 7:30 p.m., get used to the surroundings, and greet people one-on-one as they arrive, so by 9 p.m., they are comfortable.

3. Unsociable Aspies have what I call a “small comfort zone.” These Aspies have friends and a social network – but it’s a small circle. They tend to do the same things with the same people again and again, because they feel at ease in a situation they know. As a result, they won’t try new situations, or they restrict their contacts. They might be at a social function and see someone new they’d like to talk to, but they won’t step-out of their comfort zone. They truly want to expand their comfort zone, but they feel they can’t, so they’re stuck.

Statistics also show that unsociable Aspies tend to have more trouble than sociable ones when it comes to advancing in a career. Under-employment, being stuck in a job that requires less skill or training than you possess, uneasy work relationships, and slower advancement mark the careers of unsociable Aspies. Research shows that the more unsociable a person is, the less prestigious her last job title tends to be. Almost every lucrative career requires solid communication skills, an assertive personality, and an astute sense of office politics.

Research differentiates between unsociability and introversion, although they are related. Introverts prefer solitary to social activities, but do not fear social encounters like unsociable people do. If you see two people standing by a wall at a party, the introvert is there because he wants to be. The unsociable person is there because he feels like he has to be. In fact, some unsociable Aspies often attempt to force themselves to be extroverted. The problem with this strategy is it’s incomplete. Once an unsociable person is at the party or event, he thinks that’s all he has to do. But that’s just the first step. Unsociable Aspies have trouble taking the next step -- approaching people and making conversation.

One way to deal with this is to master the art of “small talk.” Unsociable Aspies say, once they’re in a conversation, they’re OK. The problem is initiating it. So, the Aspie would do well to learn “small talk.”

The by-products of social anxiety can consist of depression, self-medication (often with alcohol), family distress, and an inability to compete in our stressful, competitive society characterized by poor performance and a lack of productivity. Although medications exist to help Aspies deal with anxiety and depression, there is no magic pill for social awkwardness.

It is important to recognize that unsociability is a consequence of inadequate social skills, which are not improved just by taking a pill. The problem is that medications don’t always work, because people use them incompletely. Sure, they may reduce your anxiety, but just because you’re calm doesn’t mean you’re ready to go to the next step. So, some Aspies take a Valium, for example, and go to social functions in a relaxed state, but they still don’t know what to do.

Unsociability may also become a self-handicapping strategy -- a reason or excuse for anticipated social failure that, over time, becomes a crutch. For example, the individual may say to herself, “I just can’t do it.”

There is a misperception of unsociable Aspies. People tend to think of unsociability as a negative trait, but that’s because they don’t understand it. I talk about becoming successfully unsociable. It involves realizing that there’s nothing wrong with you. Most people don’t care about you, they care about themselves. It’s very liberating when you realize this.

Being unsociable does not mean your professional and personal achievements are limited. Unsociable Aspies can succeed on the job as well as initiate and maintain close relationships. The key to unsociability is truly in the heart. Instead of being self-conscious, be other-focused -- be concerned with other people. When you start to show that you’re approachable, it makes it easier for people to approach you. Get involved with the lives of other people, and in doing so, they will help themselves, too.

Unsociability is not a disease – and you were NOT born unsociable. You “learned” how to be unsociable as a way to deal with the stress that came with “mind-blindness.” Mind-blindness can be described as an inability to develop an awareness of what is in the mind of another human. It is not necessarily caused by an inability to imagine an answer, but is often due to not being able to gather enough information to work-out which of the many possible answers is correct. However, practicing “the art of showing (or faking, as the case may be) interest in others” can be a powerful force in moving the Aspergers individual to “sociability.”

Relationship Skills for Adults Affected by Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism