How To Learn Social Skills With Asperger’s Syndrome

I wrote this blog post to share the most important rule I learned for learning social skills with Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve addressed this post to readers who have Asperger’s themselves, but these tips can just as easily be used to help a loved one who has Asperger’s.

The most important rule I’ve discovered is this: Learn social skills by understanding the reasons behind social situations, not through rote memorization.

The Problem With Rote Memorization

The most natural way that people with Asperger’s learn social skills is through rote memorization. We learn a specific response that works for a specific situation, and so when that situation occurs, we deploy that response.

For instance, we learn through trial and error that if someone tells us their name, we should tell them our name in return or they will be upset. Easy enough.

But if the situation changes, our memorized response doesn’t help us. Let’s say Bob introduces Joe to us. Do we tell Joe our name, or is that Bob’s job? We memorized what to do in one specific situation, but when the situation changes we are out of luck.

Of course, rote memorization is better than nothing. But there’s a better way. 

Learning To Understand

Instead of memorizing specific responses to specific situations, learn to understand the reasons behind a social situation. Train yourself to think through what other people expect from a situation, and ponder how you can help meet the expectations of others and make the interaction more positive.

When you learn to think through the reasons behind a social situation, you can use that knowledge to derive the correct response to the situation–even if you have no rote response memorized. All you need to do is ponder your understanding of what people expect from a situation, and then respond in a way that matches their expectations.

For instance, let’s dig deeper into introductions. What positive results do people expect from an introduction?

The obvious result is that an introduction allows people to share the data of what everyone’s names are, but there’s more than that. Some other desired results of an introduction might be:

  • The sharing of relevant information about the people being introduced (for instance “Hi, I’m Dan, and I’m a friend of Bob’s)
  • Giving everyone the chance to speak so they feel included.
  • Creating a socially acceptable way to start a conversation from scratch
  • Allows people to get a feel for each other before the conversation begins in earnest.

When we know the results that people expect from an introduction, we can use this knowledge to guide our actions.

For instance, if we see that one desired result of an introduction is to give everyone the chance to speak, we know that we shouldn’t start telling a long story until everyone has been introduced.

If we see that introductions create a socially acceptable way to start a conversation, we know that if someone introduces themselves to us, they are trying to start a conversation and we should respond appropriately.

This concept applies to all situation situations, not just introductions. When we learn the desired results that people expect from a social situation, we can choose responses that help achieve the desired results for that situation. All you need to do is take a moment to think through the reasons behind a situation, and you can deduce what you should be doing in that situation.

By learning to understand the reasons behind a situation, we can free ourselves from the massive list of rote responses, and have a much greater ability to handle whatever social situation we find ourselves in. It really is that simple, and it really is that powerful.

Practical Applications

I’ll close with a few pieces of advice for how to apply this rule to your own lives.

First, please realize that you will not be able to create a comprehensive list of every desired result that people expect from an interaction, especially at first. But you should be able to think up at least a few, and you can ask friends and family to help you uncover more. You will also naturally discover more desired results of a given social situation simply by observing people in that social situation. So as time goes by, your understanding of social situations will grow more and more.

Second, if you are still having trouble understanding this idea, there is a metaphor that might help. Picture a classroom. The desired result of the classroom is for students to learn. A teacher has two options for trying to achieve this result. He can either make a lengthy list of rules–no talking in class, no chewing gum, raise your hand if you have a question, etc. Or, he can teach the students to think “If I do this action, will it disrupt the other students from learning?”

The lengthy list of rules is similar to the rote memorization. The problem with it is that it’s impossible to make a rule that forbids every negative thing a student might do, and it’s also no fun for students to have to memorize a huge list. The better option is for students to understand that their goal is to be non-disruptive, so they can think for themselves, and realize when a potential action would disrupt the classroom.

Third, if you need another example of understanding the reasons behind an interaction, take a look at my guide on how to make conversation. I explain the reasons behind conversation, and show you how you can use those reasons to guide your responses.

Finally, remember that like everything, this is a skill that grows with practice. If you learn to understand the reasons, you will not magically become a social superstar. It will take time, practice, and hard work for you to learn social skills in this way.

But it will take considerably more time, practice and hard work if you learn through rote memorization, and you will have much less success overall. When you learn to understand the reasons behind social situations and train yourself to react accordingly, you will dramatically multiply the benefit you receive from studying social skills. And as you continue to study social skills and grow in your understanding of social situations, you will find yourself increasingly able to thrive in social situations and build the deep, intimate relationships that you deserve.

That’s not magic. But it’s incredibly powerful, and it’s something you can start today. Good luck!

your daily beautiful

DanHow To Learn Social Skills With Asperger’s Syndrome

19 Comments on “How To Learn Social Skills With Asperger’s Syndrome”

  1. quirkyandlaughing

    I agree that rote memorization does not work. One thing that has really helped me is realizing that a lot of people are uncomfortable in social situations, not just Aspies. It makes me feel less self-conscious.

  2. Louisa Radice

    What should you do if Bob does not introduce Joe to you (or vice versa), but rather they both launch straight into a conversation about people you don’t know, events you weren’t at or other subjects to which you have nothing to contribute?

  3. tommy

    Yes I agree with the above comment, social situations don’t go like clockwork, normal people are spontaneous & that’s something I’m definitely not.. it doesn’t matter if you understand what’s expected in social situations if you have nothing to talk about..Most people talk, joke & laugh about their jobs, kids, friends and experiences in life, all of which leave me out in the cold. Yes I have trouble knowing what’s acceptable in social situations but I don’t think trying to be normal is as simple as learning what is. I have very little emotional range in my voice & I also have a very expressionless face so it’s not like I can just pretend to be normal by learning some social tricks. A person who is paralyzed knows how to walk but that doesn’t mean they can. I hope somebody can prove me wrong in all this as I’m seriously depressed about my situation & not sure what the point is in carrying on in a life that I can never really take part in in any meaningful way.

    1. Dan

      Hi Tommy,
      It sounds like you’ve had a pretty rough time, and I’m sorry for the hardship you’ve been through. I have a few comments for you that you might find encouraging.

      First, I want to let you know that it does get better. Speaking from very personal experience, I know what it’s like to be an outsider, and to be shunned, and to have no idea how to “act normal” or to fit in. That’s a really hard place to be in, and I understand why your outlook on life is pretty bleak.
      But it gets better. Little by little, you can learn the skills you need to interact with people successfully. And little by little, you start having friendships and those friendships start growing deeper and deeper. You can learn to put emotion in your face and your words (just watch actors on TV and spend time practicing what they do!), and you can learn the other social skills you need.
      Your situation is not hopeless, and you’re not paralyzed. If you get nothing else from Improve Your Social Skills, get the message that your social skills CAN improve, and you CAN find the relationships that you need and deserve.

      Second, I want you to know that you matter very much (http://www.twloha.com/blog/you-matter-very-much/) and that the idea that your life is not worth living is flatly a lie. You are on earth for a purpose, and I fully believe that you will find the joy and relationships and meaning in life that you are looking for. You just need to keep looking, and not give up.

      Third, don’t let anonymous blog comments be the only place where you share how you’re really feeling. Talk to someone–a family member, a pastor, a teacher. Let them know how you’re feeling. Pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with a counselor–or just call 1-800-SUICIDE to talk to someone for free. You can make it through this, and you don’t have to do it alone.

  4. tommy

    Thanks for your response but I have talked to many people and it just left me feeling more hopeless to be honest.. I just find it really humiliating to be like this & talking about it to people makes me feel worse… The more I try to do anything about it the more I realize that there is no magic cure & it’s something I’ll have to deal with all my life. I’m not sure I believe everyone has a purpose in life, to me life is just pretty random & cruel as far as my experience tells me anyway.. And to be honest I did think it would get better but I’m nearly 35 years old now & can’t see how thing can possibly improve but don’t worry as I’m too much of a coward to commit suicide.. so far anyway.

    1. Dan

      Hi Tommy,
      I would encourage you not to give up :) Just because you haven’t found a purpose in your life yet doesn’t mean that purpose doesn’t exist, and it’s worth looking for. You might be 35, but you still have a lot of years left, and every day is a chance at a fresh start.
      I also wanted to share a new resource I found with you, called http://www.crisischat.org. Even if you don’t find that talking with people in person is helpful, perhaps you would have a better experience talking with a counselor online. That way there’s no commitment and you only share as much as you feel comfortable sharing.
      Good luck Tommy! I am rooting for you.

  5. Steve Borgman

    Dan, it’s a pleasure to read this article. You have some incredible insight into how to explain social skills in a way that’s easy to understand and apply. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of socialthinking.com, Michelle Garcia Winner’s site. She proposes some of the same concepts you’re talking about here. But I really like the way you put it: understanding the Why behind different situations.

  6. kaleb

    Well, personally it was easier for a 5th grader and a 5th grader interacting. I went to middle school in a urban area of Omaha Nebraska, after I moved from a rural area of St. Louise. It was weird, because my friends were so laid back about my speech, and everyone else was too. It’s like rural is different from Missouri. I get here, and I say what i say to my friends, and they think it’s just weird. Darkness clouds my thoughts every so often, and the only despicable topic I can think of is football. All I hear is “The huskers lost against Colorado” and “That team sucks” and so on. I am the one dumbfounded. What ever happened to the magical forest where I can flourish, and say whatever I feel it’s undeniably relate-able to what seems only one person’s personality manifests into another. So what can I do. Well I studied up on foot ball. I even bought the book “foot ball for dummies.” So now every word (even related to football oddly enough), when I start talking, here is what I get without getting a word in “no one cares”, or “shut up before I slam you head to the ground,”(yea right just cause you can cut me short of my words, does not mean you have the guts or wits to take me) or “shut the fuck up, you don’t have any friends,” and the final, dreadful, horrifyingly, atrocious, heartless, uncaring, dick-head, rejecting, immature thing they do, THAT FUCKING NOISE, the planner is made of a layered material that makes everything pop out and follow you, and they scratch it and it’s absolutely horrible! Nails on a chalk board to normal people (and I hate that sound almost as much), and I ask them ‘why are you doing this’ and they say “cause’ it’s fun to see you shut your ears like a scociopath *laughter in the crowd*!” , and that is the only sound that will make me kick the pacifist shit out of my ass and throw them to the ground. They hit me, and it makes it worse (for them) and more, more, more ,more and I’m at the point of giving them broken limbs, and I think I just crossed the line. I know that sounds weird, and you can save the names for later. Urban school suck, and everyone who does not understand people like me can be hung publicly, burn on a stake, be thrown on the ditch, eaten alive, and left to burn in hell where they can see there actions from a standpoint of the helpless one.

  7. mikzyspitlik

    Rote learning of social interactions is too much for me. I can’t do it. In high school I tried to learn social interactions by formula but eventually failed at it because my formulas were always flawed. I’ve gotten better at it over time and I’ve sense realized that most people are pointless to talk to. Or maybe I just was friends with a bunch of idiots who tortured me without my knowing it. My feelings were not hurt by this of course ’cause I didn’t know what they were doing and when I found out I didn’t care. I still find it comical that people focus so much attention on me, a socially awkward person who avoids social interactions because of the anxiety they cause. Now in college, people think I’m either stuck up or arrogant because I now willfully avoid interacting with them. There is no balance with most people. They hate you for being odd and trying to talk to them and then hate them for choosing not to talk to them. I’ve concluded that most humans are insecure morons who need to torture others for the sick joy of being “better”.

  8. ichabod

    I’m a highschool freshman. I spent middle school with someone who helped me figure out social things and how to and how not to talk to others. Now I only get to see her arbitrarily. Usually talk with email. Its difficult. I have the most difficult time with teachers. Since they always want eye contact and smooth speech.

  9. Fahrudian

    Great article Dan!In general,we have to use our brains and think about reasons why something happens.We are not robots.We are amazing creatures and we can got everything what we want. :)

  10. J

    I agree with you that learning things by rote isn’t the best method but it seems to be automatic to me.
    I’m in my mid 20′s and was only diagnosed with aspergers very recently having muddled along until now.
    I have been having alot of social problems in the workplace and this has made me aware that I run off a subconscious rote list that has built up over the years.
    Does anyone have any tips for trying to uncover and unlearn this list?
    The issues at work have made me really ill and I just want to find some way of making it through all of this.

  11. aspergian458

    Hi everyone! I am in middle school now and I am just realizing that I have some serious social skill issues. Ever since I was in school, I had a friend that I felt I could talk to freely, but now that I just switched schools, I have no friends. I am in a small school, so I only have about 50 kids in my grade. There are a lot of cool kids and about 10 weird kids. I know that if I hang out with weird kids that the cool kids will not like me, so I just hang out with the cool kids instead. The problem is that I never say anything. They think I am so weird. I they actually say some pretty embarrassing things to me. I just don’t know how to socialize. Also, it would be cool if someone wrote an article about teenage socializing because when I try to find something to help, it always talks about what adults would like me to do. For example, they would tell me that if I wanted to hang out with another group of kids, I should say this, “Hi, my name is Jimmy, can I join your conversation?” or something like that. I know from watching other kids that that is not what other kids do. That is just one example, but I would really like if I could find an article about what is appropriate for teenagers.

  12. Priscila

    Hi Daniel! I`m so happy cause I`ve found your page! Until last yer, I figured that there was sometihng wrong with me, but I never would know what. I asked myself much times why I just can`t to know being with other like the rest of world. So, few days ago I found a test in a facebook group about
    shy, and I knew about Aspies syndrome. All the things become so clear, cause I had the most of all description about an Aspier. And now I found your page, with information that i really need, the first time in my life! Thank you very much! Excuse me the poor english, I`ve learned by myself, so please ignore some grammar errors :)

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