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Social-Skills Training for People with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Social skills are the skills we have to get along with others. Often times, we take our social skills for granted without realizing all the complicated skills we use when we interact with family, friends, coworkers, and so on.

Some of these skills are very basic (e.g., saying hello, smiling, making eye contact). Others are more complex (e.g., negotiation, conflict resolution, etc.). Some adult Aspies learn social skills easily and quickly, whereas others find social interactions more challenging and may need to work on developing their social skills consciously.

Social skills are important for Aspergers (high functioning autistic) adults for a number of reasons. Aspies with good social skills are naturally more popular than their less socially adept peers, which means they have better supports to call on when experiencing difficulties in their lives. Also, well-liked individuals get more “social reinforcement” (i.e., messages from others that they are appreciated and worthwhile), so they tend to have higher self-esteem, which can also help them through tough times.

Aspergers adults often experience social difficulties, social rejection, and interpersonal relationship problems. Such negative interpersonal outcomes cause emotional pain and suffering. They also appear to contribute to the development of co-morbid mood and anxiety disorders.

Because Aspergers is an "invisible disorder," often unrecognized by those who may be unfamiliar with the disorder, socially inappropriate behaviors that are the result of Aspergers symptoms are often attributed to other causes (i.e., people often perceive these behaviors and the individual who commits them as rude, self-centered, irresponsible, lazy, ill-mannered, and a host of other negative personality attributes). 
 
Over time, such negative labels lead to social rejection of the Aspie. Social rejection causes emotional pain in the lives of many adults who have Aspergers and can create havoc and lower self-esteem throughout the life span. In relationships/marriages, the “inappropriate” social behavior may anger the neurotypical partner/spouse, who may eventually "burn out" and give up on the relationship/marriage.

Educating individuals with Aspergers, their significant others and their friends about Aspergers and the ways in which it affects social skills and interpersonal behaviors can help alleviate much of the conflict and blame. At the same time, the individual with Aspergers needs to learn strategies to become as proficient as possible in the area of social skills. With proper assessment, treatment and education, adults with Aspergers can learn to interact with others effectively in a way that enhances their
social life.

Social skills are generally acquired through incidental learning: watching people, copying the behavior of others, practicing, and getting feedback. Most people start this process during early childhood. Social skills are practiced and honed by "playing grown-up" and through other childhood activities. The finer points of social interactions are sharpened by observation and peer feedback.

Children with Aspergers often miss these details. They may pick up bits and pieces of what is appropriate but lack an overall view of social expectations. Unfortunately, as adults, they often realize "something" is missing but are never quite sure what that "something" may be.

Social acceptance can be viewed as a spiral going up or down. Individuals who exhibit appropriate social skills are rewarded with more approval from those with whom they interact and are encouraged to develop even better social skills. For those with Aspergers, the spiral often goes downward. Their lack of social skills leads to peer-rejection, which then limits opportunities to learn social skills, which leads to more rejection, and so on. Social punishment includes rejection, avoidance, and other, less subtle means of exhibiting one's disapproval towards another person.

It is important to note that people do not often let the offending individual know the nature of the social violation. Pointing out that a “social skill error” is being committed is often considered socially inappropriate. Thus, Aspies are often left on their own to try to improve their social skills without understanding exactly what areas need improvement.

Specific Social Skills—

• A momentary lapse in attention may result in the adult with Aspergers missing important information in a social interaction. If a simple sentence like "Let's meet at the park at noon," becomes simply "Let's meet at noon," the listener with Aspergers misses the crucial information about the location of the meeting. The speaker may become frustrated or annoyed when the listener asks where the meeting will take place, believing that the listener intentionally wasn't paying attention and didn't value what they had to say. Or even worse, the individual with Aspergers goes to the wrong place, yielding confusion and even anger in the partner. Unfortunately, often neither the speaker nor listener realizes that important information has been missed until it is too late.

• Actions speak louder than words. If someone's words say one thing but their actions reveal another, it would be wise to consider that their actions might be revealing their true feelings.

• Be alert to what others are doing. Look around for clues about proper behavior, dress, seating, parking and the like.

• Be aware of body language, tone of voice, behavior, or the look of someone's eyes to better interpret what they are saying.

• Find a guide to help you with this hidden language. Compare your understanding of reality with their understanding of reality. If there is a discrepancy, you might want to try the other person's interpretation and see what happens, especially if you usually get it wrong.

• Learn to interpret polite behavior. Polite behavior often disguises actual feelings.

• Look at a person's choice of words to better detect the subtext. ("I'd love to go" probably means yes. "If you want to" means probably not, but I'll do it.)

• Look for clues in your environment to help you decipher the subtext. Be mindful of alternative possibilities. Be observant.

A related social skills difficulty for many with Aspergers involves missing the subtle nuances of communication. Those with Aspergers will often have difficulty "reading between the lines" or understanding subtext. It is difficult enough for most to attend to the text of conversations without the additional strain of needing to be aware of the subtext and what the person really means. Unfortunately, what is said is often not what is actually meant. 
 

Treatment Strategies—

When the social skill areas in need of strengthening have been identified, obtaining a referral to a therapist or coach who understands how Aspergers affects social skills is recommended. Social skills training usually involves instruction, modeling, role-playing, and feedback in a safe setting such as a social skills group run by a therapist. 
 
In addition, arranging the environment to provide reminders has proven essential to using the correct social behavior at the opportune moment. These findings suggest that adults with Aspergers wishing to work on their social skills should consider the following elements when seeking an effective intervention. It is important to note that these treatment strategies are suggestions based on clinical practice, rather than empirical research.

1. Aspergers adults should have a positive attitude and be open to the growth of their social skills. It is also important to be open and appreciative of feedback provided by others.

2. Adults with Aspergers may want to pick and work on one goal at a time, based on a self-assessment and the assessments of others. Tackling the skill areas one at a time allows the Aspie to master each skill before moving on to the next.

3. According to social exchange theory, people maintain relationships based on how well those relationships meet their needs. People are not exactly "social accountants," but on some level, people do weigh the costs and benefits of being in relationships. Adults with Aspergers are considered to be "high maintenance." Therefore, it is helpful to see what they can bring to relationships to help balance the equation. Investigators have found that the following are characteristics of highly likeable people: sincere, honest, understanding, loyal, truthful, trustworthy, intelligent, dependable, thoughtful, considerate, reliable, warm, kind, friendly, happy, unselfish, humorous, responsible, cheerful, and trustful. Developing or improving any of the likeability characteristics should help one's social standing.

4. Oftentimes social skills can be significantly improved when there is an understanding of social skills as well as the areas in need of improvement. Reading books on the subject of social skills training can provide some of that knowledge.

5. Adults with Aspergers can learn a great deal by watching others do what they need to learn to do. They may want to try selecting models both at work and in their personal lives to help them grow in this area. Television may also provide role models.

6. Adults with Aspergers can use prompts to stay focused on particular social skill goals. The prompts can be visual (an index card), verbal (someone telling them to be quiet), physical (a vibrating watch set every 4 minutes reminding them to be quiet), or a gesture (someone rubbing their head) to help remind them to work on their social skills.

7. Practicing the skills they need with others is a good way for individuals with Aspergers to receive feedback and consequently improve their social skills.

8. Those who struggle with missing pieces of information during conversation may benefit from developing a system of checking with others what they heard. "I heard you say that. Did I get it right? Is there more?" Or an individual with Aspergers could ask others to check with them after providing important information. "Please tell me what you heard me say." In this way, social errors due to inattention can be avoided.

9. Visualization can be used to gain additional practice and improve one's ability to apply the skill in other settings. Those who need practice in social skills can decide what they want to do and rehearse it in their minds, imagining actually using the skill in the setting they will be in with the people they will actually be interacting with. They can repeat this as many times as possible to help "over-learn" the skill. In this manner, they can gain experience in the "real" world, which will greatly increase the likelihood of their success.
 

Social skills are like any other kind of skill – they can be learned. How do you know if you need to improve your social skills? 
  • Do you wish that you had more friends but don't know how to go about making them?
  • Do you think of yourself as a 'loner'?
  • Do you feel like there's nobody to turn to when you need support?
  • Do you often feel uncomfortable around other people?
  • Do you find it hard to know what to say sometimes?
  • Do you consider yourself a rather shy person?

If you answered yes to any of these, then you may benefit from working on your social skills. The following is a list of basic social skills. Take note of any areas where you might need improvement. We will be discussing each of these areas in greater detail in subsequent posts.

Here are the simple skills involved in conversing and interacting with people on an everyday basis:
  • Basic politeness (e.g., saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, saying ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’, etc.)
  • Making frequent eye contact
  • Showing "confident" body language (e.g., an open and direct stance, not fidgeting or twisting, etc.)
  • Showing interest in others (e.g., asking how their day was, how they thought they did on an exam, etc.)
  • Smiling when greeting people and talking

Here are the skills you use when talking to other people:
  • Knowing when to disclose personal information and when not to
  • Listening and showing interest in what the other person has to say
  • Nodding and smiling to indicate that you are following along
  • Small talk or being able to chat about unimportant things
  • Taking turns when talking
  • Using humor

Here are many skills involved in making and sustaining friendships:
  • Approach skills (e.g., being able to go up and start talking to someone who you don't know or don't know well)
  • Sharing decision making (e.g., not always insisting on having one's way but negotiating about what to do, where to go, etc.)
  • Showing appropriate affection and appreciation
  • Maintaining contact (e.g., not expecting the other person to "do all the work" of keeping up the friendship)
  • Being supportive (e.g., showing concern when your friend is having a hard time)
  • Allowing distance and closeness (people need time apart as well as together)
  • Thoughtfulness (e.g., "thinking ahead" about what might be a nice thing to do for your friend)

Empathy means being able to put yourself into someone else's shoes and recognizing their feelings. It is not the same as sympathy or "feeling sorry for someone". Empathy is responding in an understanding and caring way to what others are feeling. Empathic skills include:
  • Being able to recognize what someone else might be feeling in a given situation
  • Expressing concern at others' distress
  • Noticing other people's feelings
  • Showing sensitivity to others' feelings when communicating (e.g., being tactful when making critical comments when criticism is necessary and/or appropriate)

Social interactions do not always run smoothly. Conflict resolution skills include:
  • Assertiveness (e.g., being able to say what you are feeling without being aggressive or getting personal)
  • Negotiation skills (e.g., being able to discuss a conflict calmly and rationally and come to an agreement about a solution)

Principles for learning social skills:
  • Identify the skill you want to learn and specify the actual behavior, the social group, the setting, and the situation.
  • Social skills need to be learned in small steps (and only one or two at a time).
  • Social skills are practiced best in role play situations but are learned best in real-life interactions.
  • As much as possible, get immediate feedback and reinforcement from others.
  • Learning social skills takes time.

Although Aspergers certainly brings unique challenges to social relationships, information and resources are available to help adults with Aspergers improve their social skills. Most of this information is based upon sound clinical practice and research. There is a great need for more research on social skills and Aspergers in adults. Seek help through reading, counseling, or coaching and, above all, build and maintain social connections.

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples
 

Easy Ways for Adults with Aspergers to Develop Conversation Skills

One of the best ways to connect with others and build quality relationships is through making conversation. Although most "Aspies" can hold a conversation, only a few are smooth and charismatic when they talk. Working as a “life coach” for teens and adults with Aspergers, 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.

 

 

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples [eBook and Audio]

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