Autistic-friendly social skills vs. blending in with NT's
by Mona Pereth
From what I've heard, a lot of "social skills training" involves learning to act like neurotypical people (NT's). For example, imitating NT eye contact rhythms, NT body language, and NT-style chit chat.
Many (though not all) work-capable autistic people do manage to learn to do these things, but find them stressful and utterly exhausting, draining precious energy away from doing anything productive. Others are either unable to do these things or unwilling to accept the personal cost of doing them, and hence face big social and economic disadvantages in mainstream society.
I'm a big believer in the aim of creating autistic-friendly environments (e.g. autistic-friendly workplaces and autistic-friendly social spaces) in which we're NOT obligated to wear ourselves out by trying to act like NT's.
Yet, even in an autistic-friendly space, we still do need to have some social skills in order to get along with other autistic people and with autistic-friendly NT's. But the "social skills" needed in an autistic-friendly space are not the same set of "social skills" that are needed in order to blend in with NT's. The two social skill sets do overlap, but are far from identical.
In a truly autistic-friendly space, it should not be necessary to imitate NT eye contact rhythms or NT body language. It should be understood and accepted that different people have different natural body language, and that you can't know what it means until you get to know the person well.
Also in an autistic-friendly space, it should not be necessary to be able to pick up on subtle hints. There should, instead, be a strong ethic of clear and forthright communication (at least among those of us who are capable of spoken and/or written communication).
There should also be a strong ethic of consent and respect for personal space, e.g. not hugging someone without first asking if they want to be hugged. There should be a recognition that we're all different, with different needs.
Social skills that are needed in autistic-friendly spaces as well as in the mainstream NT world include routine basic courtesy.
There are also some social skills that I think are needed more by us in an autistic-friendly space than by NT's in the NT world. These include autistic-friendly variants of the following:
- Assertiveness. (without being aggressive).
- Active listening.
- Giving and receiving constructive criticism.
- Conflict resolution.
- Being alert to possible differences in perception and needs.
Lists of online tutorials on some of these skills are linked in the list above. Similar lists regarding other skills will be provided here later.
I think these skills -- or at least autistic-friendly variants thereof -- are probably easier for many of us to learn, and less exhausting to exercise once learned, than the art of pretending to be NT. Some of these skills may even come more naturally to (at least some of) us than to NT's. Many NT's do not have these skills, preferring instead to rely on subtle hints.
Yet the above-listed autistic-friendly skills can also be useful in many mainstream NT workplaces -- although, of course, greater care would need to be taken when exercising them there. There are, currently in the NT world, many jobs in which these skills are required. As a result, there are many tutorials about these skills available on the web.
Note: When I speak about "assertiveness" and "active listening" as being needed in order for us to get along in an autistic-friendly space (at least for work-capable autistic people), I am talking about the purely verbal (spoken and/or written, depending on the individual's abilities) aspects of these skills. These days, many of the above-mentioned web tutorials on assertiveness and active listening emphasize eye contact and deliberate body language. In an autistic-friendly space, we should be allowed to ignore that stuff and focus just on the content of what is being said.
(There is also one particular style of both assertiveness and active listening that isn't easy for most autistic people to learn and practice, but might be (in some cases, at least) a useful technique for NT's who wish to improve communication with autistic loved ones: "Nonviolent Communication" (NVC). To me, NVC -- with some autistic-friendly enhancements, as discussed on the above-linked page --- looks like it might be especially useful to NT's who feel frustrated by a lack of emotional awareness on the part of their autistic spouse or romantic partner.)