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.
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!