Blog for Individuals and Neurodiverse Couples Affected by ASD
Are you an adult with High-Functioning Autism or Asperger's? Are you in a relationship with someone on the autism spectrum? Are you struggling emotionally, socially, spiritually or otherwise? Then you've come to the right place. We are here to help you in any way we can. Kick off your shoes and stay awhile...
One of the best ways to connect with others and build quality relationships is through making conversation. Although most people on the autism spectrum can hold a conversation, only a few are smooth and charismatic when they talk. Working as a “life coach” for teens and adults with ASD, I have explored and tested many techniques for improving their conversation skills.
I have come up with 15 simple – but effective – ways to be a good conversationalist. Here they are:
1. Ask good questions. A routine question will evoke a routine response. Thus, "How's it going?" will generally get a "Fine, thanks," or perhaps a "I can't complain." If the purpose of the question is only to acknowledge an acquaintance briefly and move on, your purpose is served. This is the social function of language that the anthropologist Malinowski called "phatic communion," which is nothing more than a brief and superficial verbal connection, the smallest of small talk. However, if you'd prefer a more substantial conversation, you'll need to use a different question to evoke a different response. A deeper and more detailed conversation will certainly be less predictable and probably more interesting, and it will likely have the effect of enriching your relationship.
2. Balance the energy. Think of a conversation as an exchange of energy. Whenever such an exchange takes place, balance is always important. You want the energy going one way to match the energy going the other. This balance is often the missing ingredient in conversations between an Aspie and a neurotypical. To get around this, when the other person is talking, you should be listening. Then, when the other person has stopped talking, it’s your turn to respond. Good conversation implies balance. It is through balancing the energy in conversations that you become able to make them fruitful for the both you. The scientific evidence suggests that balancing our conversation so that everyone gets a turn (who wants a turn) is supportive of social relations.
In informal conversation, balance requires that speakers monitor themselves so that they do not dominate by talking too much. It is also important for more quiet people to speak up from time to time so that the talkative ones don't think you are giving up any interest in sharing your ideas. Balancing the talk doesn't require a strict 50-50 distribution. The ratio can be 80-20 and still be balanced, as when one person is mainly interviewing the other who of course will do most of the talking. The key here is not so much the actual time each one talks. It is the taking turns that matters. One person may ask a brief question that requires a long, detailed answer.
3. Be patient with yourself as you go through a “trial and error period” in which you have some good conversations some of the time, and maybe some not-so-good ones at other times. Don’t keep score, just keep trying.
4. Conversational skills don’t improve over night. It takes time, practice and the ability to learn from your own experiences. Additionally, these skills have virtually no limit to how far they can be developed. Considering your relationships constitute one of the fundamental components of your life, it is worth mastering your interpersonal abilities.
5. Express your emotions. It’s very rare to meet people who are comfortable talking about their emotions and how certain things make them feel, especially with strangers. But, this way of talking has real quality. Don’t just present the facts – you’re not a newspaper. Express your feelings about those facts. Keep in mind that it is at the emotional level that others connect best.
6. Give unique compliments. Anybody can pay a generic compliment to try and get another person’s approval or appreciation. Charismatic individuals, on the other hand, are able to really pay attention to the people they are in a conversation with, to look beyond the facade and thus, pay unique compliments. Do the same, and besides encouraging others, you may even help them find out things about themselves they didn’t know. Some people have trouble giving compliments. Others have trouble receiving compliments graciously. Most of these troubles are caused by upbringing and culture. All of these old habits can be eliminated and replaced with kinder and more generous behavior that fosters better relations between people.
7. Have fun. Don’t make talking to others a “chore,” rather make it an enjoyable way to spend your time and energy.
8. Hold more eye contact. Most Aspies tend to keep eye contact about 2/3 of the time or less when they talk. Change that temptation to look away from the listener. It’s a very good idea to hold eye contact just a bit more than ½ the time. This will convey confidence and interest in interacting with others.
9. Keep your positive energy up. When we interact with others, we exchange not only words and bodily expressions. We also give off - exchange - our vital energy. If our energy is high and vibrant, we lift the conversation. If it's low and sluggish, we sap energy from the encounter.
10. Notice the details. Individuals with good conversation skills tend to (a) notice details that the average person misses, and (b) pull details into the conversation. They may notice and point out an interesting ring on the other person’s hand, a certain foreign accent, or a certain voice tone they use when saying a name. Thus, such people impress others in a very graceful manner.
11. Offer interesting insights. Anybody can talk about the news or express basic opinions. But good conversationalists can frequently tell you things you didn’t know and that you’ll find fascinating. This is why it’s good to have knowledge in certain fields (e.g., psychology, sociology, etc.), and bring such knowledge out at the right moments in a conversation.
12. Show interest in - and be curious about - those you talk with. In conversation, to be curious is a definite plus. Being curious about another person helps to engage us and to validate that person as interesting. On the other hand, if we seem bored by or indifferent to the person, they feel invalidated, as if we are saying "You hold no interest for me. You are not interesting."
13. Smile. Smiling is a powerful tool, try it right now. Let a big smile stretch across your face. It feels good doesn’t it? A smile makes you look and feel friendly and approachable. It keeps the mood warm and disarms people. Not only that – it is contagious.
14. Talk slowly. Typically, good conversationalists don’t rush into a conversation. They take their time when they reflect on something and when they say it out loud. They act as if they have all the time in the world. This makes them appear centered and collected. Model this way of talking, and you will create the same effect.
15. Use the right words. The ability to be a good talker has a lot to do with choosing the precise words to convey your precise feelings or thoughts. Constantly develop your vocabulary and practice communicating as accurately as possible. It will help you develop a way with words and allow you to express yourself more easily.
One of the more humbling things for therapists is realizing the cases where they missed the diagnosis of Aspergers (or high functioning autism) in working with their clients, and perhaps came up with something else like Narcissistic Personality Disorder because they didn’t have adequate training at the time.
Although named by Hans Asperger in 1946, Aspergers didn’t get codified in the DSM until 1994. For many years thereafter, it was seen as a childhood disorder and not something to consider when working with troubled grown-ups. But more and more, therapists are finding – and diagnosing – Aspergers adults who fell through the cracks as a child (i.e., they would have been diagnosed earlier if we knew then what we know now).
Fortunately, training in the treatment of adult Aspergers is becoming more prevalent in graduate programs and professional in-service opportunities. The diagnosis has now become part of professional discourse and the popular culture. Also, books and materials are emerging to help the experienced therapist (as well as the novice) become familiar with diagnostic issues and treatment options.
While many therapies are appropriate for Aspergers adults, treatment really depends on the person’s response to the diagnosis (and responses can run the gamut from joy to anger and everything in between). Some people are overjoyed, because finally everything makes sense to them (e.g., why they can't hold a job, tolerate noisy children, stay in a relationship, etc.). They have blamed themselves - or others - all their lives. Now they have a framework in which to understand their weaknesses – and their strengths. For a lot of adult “Aspies,” it's a relief!
Of course, there is no obligation to do anything about an Aspergers diagnosis, and some adults simply stop the diagnostic process and walk away. Conversely, for those individuals who are interested in exploring their Aspergers further, the therapist does a debriefing and exploration focused on what the client feels now that he knows about the condition. The therapist (a) does a diagnostic “life mapping,” (b) explores the life map, (c) talks about how all Aspergers adults are different from one another, and (d) creates a treatment plan (e.g., “You came to therapy for a reason. Where would you like to go next?”).
Some of the issues that are explored in treatment include "quality of life" concerns (e.g., leisure interests, social activities, health, employment, family, etc.). The therapist will look at all the different areas that make up quality of life, see how the client is doing, and where the client wants to make some changes.
In addition to working on personal goals, “family work” is often indicated. For example, there are often rifts that have occurred where siblings are no longer talking. The therapist explores questions like, “What do you want to tell your family?” “How would you like to repair relationships?” Sometimes the family members come in to work on issues together.
Beyond cognitive-behavioral therapy, adults with an Aspergers diagnosis have a number of other treatment options. They can request that their therapist write a report that clearly outlines diagnostic issues, IQ, adaptive behaviors, etc. With that report, the Aspie can often qualify for services provided by state and/or federal agencies. Such services range from cognitive therapy to vocational training, job placement, health insurance, and, in some cases, housing.
Some of the therapies that are useful for children are also helpful for adults. For example, sensory integration therapy can be helpful in alleviating hypersensitivity to sound and light, and social skills therapy (often in the form of life-coaching or job-coaching) can improve job situations, friendships, marriages, etc.
Perhaps most important is a "do it yourself" therapy. Aspergers adults have access to books, support groups, conferences and other resources that provide insight, ideas and information on all aspects of life with Aspergers.