Since Improve Your Social Skills launched in 2012, I've received thousands of emails from readers all around the world. Many of the emails contain touching stories from readers talking about their social difficulties and asking for advice.
While every story is different, many of my readers share similar struggles. As a result, I've written a response to the most frequent questions I received. I hope that if you are one of the many people who is wrestling with one of these questions, you will find my answers helpful.
I think I might have Asperger's/Autism. Should I get diagnosed?
If you think you may have Asperger's or a similar condition, I suggest that you talk to a licensed mental health professional about a diagnosis. There are a few reasons for this:
1) Having a diagnosis can provide you with access to lots of help and support. For instance, there might be a nonprofit or government agency in your area that helps people on the autism spectrum, or your college or school might have special accommodations available to people with a diagnosis. There might also be support groups or community gatherings for people on the spectrum that provide the opportunity to make friends and grow socially. You might decide you don't need to use these supports, but it's good to have these resources available to you if you need them.
2) A professional will do what's called a "differential diagnosis", which means they will consider if your experiences might be better explained by something other than Autism or Asperger's. In some cases, this can lead to a new solution that you wouldn't otherwise have considered. For instance, some people who might think they have autism actually just have social anxiety, and if they learn to overcome their anxiety, they can achieve a great deal of social success. In other case, someone might be missing social cues or blurting out inappropriate things because of ADHD, not autism, and getting on ADHD medication provides significant relief. Or a professional may determine that your social difficulties are not the result of a mental health issue, and you simply need some social skills training or increased confidence. While it can be tempting to do this differential diagnosis yourself, only a professional has the skills and training necessary to really know what's going on.
3) Finally, getting a real diagnosis can be a helpful way to understand yourself better, and to explain your experiences to other people. Of course, a diagnosis doesn't define you. But you might find that it helps you make sense of your experiences, and interpret your actions with greater understanding and compassion.
How do I get diagnosed with Asperger's or Autism?
Find a licensed mental health professional (therapist, psychologist, etc) who specializes in autism. You want someone who has extensive training and experience in diagnosing autism, as well as a graduate degree in mental health. They should use a reputable tool for diagnosing autism such as the ADI-R or the ADOS, rather than relying on their own intuition or a tool they developed themselves. Avoid people who are not licensed as mental health specialists -- you don't want to trust your diagnosis to anyone who doesn't have the proper training and credentials.
I think a loved one might have Asperger's or Autism. What should I do?
I suggest you start by providing them with some autobiographical stories of people on the spectrum, especially if they are new to the idea of Asperger's/Autism. For instance, you might suggest that they listen to my TEDx talk on Asperger's, or read a book like The Journal Of Best Practices.
If your loved one finds connections between their life and the stories of others on the spectrum, it may make them open to further exploration. You can then talk to them about pursuing a diagnosis, seeking out a local support group, or doing social skills training using the resources on this site.
You might find that your loved one isn't willing to consider the possibility that they might have Asperger's/Autism, or acknowledge their social difficulties. If your loved one is your child, you should probably get connected with a therapist in your area who specializes in autism and collaborate with that person about the best strategy for helping your child.
When your loved one is an adult, you may need to take a step back. Remember that they are the only one who make the decision to change or to seek help. Focus on offering them love, compassion and support -- and don't neglect your own well being. If you find yourself becoming consumed by your worry for your loved one, it may be better to start by seeking out therapy or a support group for yourself rather than trying yet again to convince them to change.
Social Skills FAQ
I'm terrible at social skills. How do I get better?
Start with your mindset.
Social skills are just like any other skill. If you invest the time to study and practice, you'll get better.
But many people don't see it that way. For some reason, it's common for folks that struggle socially to think of social ability as something totally outside of their control, like height or eye color.
When you think this way, you make it impossible to improve. Remember, learning any skill takes practice. Practice takes a willingness to try again and again, even after you fail the first time (or the first 100 times.)
If you believe your social skills can't get any better, then you have no reason to try again and again until you succeed. You try, fail, and give up.
So challenge yourself to change your mindset. Remind yourself that social skills can improve, and that study and practice will pay off. If you feel discouraged in the face of failure, remind yourself of the old saying, "The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried."
By the way, the idea that I just shared is was developed by a psychologist named Carol Dweck. She calls it the "growth mindset" and she's done a lot of research to show how having a growth mindset can lead to success in all sorts of areas of life. If you are curious to learn more about the science behind it, and how to develop a growth mindset, you can read her book or watch this short video.
I know I'm repeating myself, but I want this point to hit home: Like any other skill, you will get better at social skills if you study and practice.
So how do you start studying?
Well, I think my website provides a great opening resource. Start with my free material, and then move on to my books when you're ready.
But don't limit yourself to just me. My list of recommended books has some great authors that have helped me personally; I'm sure that with a little research you can find more experts who can help you along your journey.
The important thing is to make study a habit. If you're spending 20 minutes a day reading about social skills, it will start to sink in over time. So develop a strategy for making study a consistent part of your life. Perhaps you set aside a certain time each day to study, or you leave a social skills book on your table and read a chapter every morning over breakfast. When in doubt, start small. You can always challenge yourself to spend more time later.
As with studying, you want to make practice a continuous habit. A little progress every day leads to huge improvement over time.
You might set practice goals that relate to specific skills that you are learning. For instance, when I was first learning body language, I would watch an episode of TV with the sound off so I could practice identifying the characters' emotions based on body language (I would then rewind and watch again with the audio to see if I was correct or not.)
You could also set practice goals that are designed to increase your ability to take the initiative in social settings. For instance, you might decide to attend a meetup group, and make a goal to talk to three different people while you're there.
Whatever you choose, start by setting small, easily achievable goals. You want to get some early wins to help yourself build momentum. And make sure your goals are measurable, so you know if you are succeeding. Saying "I want to be more confident" isn't a measurable goal. Instead, pick a goal like "I want to start three conversations" -- something that definitely requires confidence to achieve!
If you are struggling to set up a practice routine, I suggest you read my book Level Up Your Social Life. Level Up ends each lesson with a series of real-world tasks you can do to practice what you're learning in the book. The book will guide you through about a month of step-by-step practice objectives, which will put you well on your way towards developing your practice habit.
If all of this feels overwhelming, remember that you don't have to go it alone. Consider reaching out to friends, family, trusted mentors, teachers, etc.
It's okay to start small. For instance, you might decide to ask a friend to accompany you to a social event that you would be too nervous to attend alone. Or you might decide to ask a parent to give you feedback on a specific social skills ("Can you let me know when I am interrupting too much?") It takes courage to ask for help, but you might be surprised by how many people in your life are willing to support you in your social journey.
Finally, professional support could be a great option for you. A therapist has advanced training in helping you get better at relationships, make progress towards your goals, and feel more confident. If you've never talked to a therapist before (or if it's been awhile), seeking therapy could be one of the best things you do to help improve your social skills.
Help! My mind goes blank when talking to people.
Nine times out of ten, this is related to anxiety. When you are feeling anxious, your mind goes to "fight or flight" mode. Your brain is focused on the sense of danger, and it's much more difficult to think of something to say in conversation.
The cause-and-effect also goes in the opposite direction. It's natural for a conversation to have moments of silence when nobody has anything to say. But if you are prone to anxiety, these moments can send you into a tailspin of worry. A small pause in the conversation turns into a crisis, as your fear pulls you out of the natural flow of the conversation.
So if your mind goes blank, take a moment to check in with yourself. Chances are, you'll notice that you're feeling anxious, or that fearful thoughts ("I'm screwing up!") are racing through your mind. If you take a moment to reduce your anxiety, you'll have a much easier time thinking of something to say.
I have social anxiety. What should I do?
There is a lot that you can do on your own.
You could learn some techniques from a book, or use an app like Joyable or Youper to help coach you. There's evidence that exercise and meditation can reduce anxiety (yoga combines the two, so it's great for reducing anxiety.) During the moments when you feel anxious, you can use breathing to calm yourself down, or practice thinking through your anxious thoughts logically ("Is it really true that everyone will hate me forever if I tell this joke wrong?")
You might also benefit from working with a therapist. Anxiety is extremely treatable, and a good therapist can teach you lots of skills for managing your anxiety. While your anxiety probably won't go away entirely, therapy should help you reach the point where anxiety doesn't hold you back from enjoying your life or participating fully in social situations.
If you're nervous about seeing a therapist, it might be helpful to know that anxiety is one of the most common conditions that therapists treat. So it's likely your therapist will have worked with lots of people that have very similar struggles to you, and they'll be well qualified to help. You might even find a therapist that specializes in anxiety. Start your search by Googling for "anxiety therapist in [your city]" and see what you find.