Tools for Social Thinking
Besides taking a social skills class to cover the basics, what can autistic adults do to enhance social comprehension? How can our families and the professionals who work with us be sure that staying home to play video games alone is a true choice and not just a default option because we don’t know how to make and keep friends?
Many of us on the autism spectrum are strong visual thinkers or at least respond positively to visual supports. Research shows, for example, that Social Stories™  can be effective tools for decoding social nuances and reinforcing positive social behavior. Social Stories™ visually explain the social world in a way that is both efficient and helpful. The “steps” of a social action or the sequence of a consequence are demonstrated. This enables autistic individuals to “watch” what happened in reviewing a situation to better plan for next time or to predict what might occur and what might be suitable options for an impending event. Many books have been written about creating and using Social Stories™. Most of the materials are for geared for children but can be easily adapted for adults.
Even informal visual supports are useful for addressing the challenges of our unique autistic profile. Take, for example, the concept of maturity. I hear parents all the time tell their teenagers, “You need to be mature.” What does mature look like? What does it sound like? Do you have to do “being mature” all the time, or just around teachers and parents? What about at a football game on the weekend? Cut pictures out of magazines that break down abstract concepts like “maturity” into useful visual examples of the behavior that is expected and include clues that delineate when, how, and why we do these adult behaviors.
Research also strongly suggests that having a peer navigator can be an integral aspect of imparting “hidden curriculum” wisdom and enhancing success especially at school and at work. Our neurotypical family friends, siblings, cousins, and co-workers can all be tapped for a wellspring of social information that professionals often simply do not know. When I heard some teenagers say, “He’s ill,” about a member of the group, I thought they meant the student they were referring to was sick. Apparently, “ill” now means “cool.” The first time someone asked me, “Do you want to go out?” I couldn’t fathom why because it was pouring rain. My sister, two years younger, instantly understood the question.
Social Stories™, visual supports, and peer navigators are just three of a plethora of approaches to teaching social cognition and social nuances. Again, while most of the research and programming focuses on children, strategies can easily be adapted for teenagers and adults. The salient point of any of these methods is that we need to go beyond standards of etiquette (say hello) or typical conversation (ask about the weather). What we really need to know is why people do what they do, why they say what they say, and why they react to us and each other in certain ways.
Facility with Emotions: Another Key Social Skill
Many of us on the autism spectrum do not intrinsically recognize our emotions or know how to use our feelings to make wise social discriminations. This may seem unusual to neurotypicals because non-autistic people appear born wired to understand their feelings and how to skillfully use emotions to steer themselves through life. But those of us on the spectrum must learn step-by-step that if your heart is racing and your stomach “drops” these are nervous signals that can be used to pick a course of appropriate and potentially life-saving action in social situations: It may be time to leave or time to summon emergency assistance.
Regulation of emotions is an often overlooked component of social skills curricula but is a vital aspect of adult life. When we do learn through effort and practice how to identify our emotions and accurately scale the “amount” of emotion we are experiencing, we can more confidently know what to do. In her book Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Helping Preteens and Teens Get Ready for the Real World , Teresa Bolick explains how to make and use a feelings chart, an important visual aid and tool. Though some of her books are geared toward children, all of Kari Dunn-Buron’s books  are useful for teaching autistic adults how to scale emotions and tailor reactions adeptly, thereby improving social success.
It is important to remember that regulation works both ways. We need to know that a small amount of frustration, such as tipping over a box of paper clips, does not warrant the same reaction as a large amount so that we can tailor our responses to the events of everyday life in age-appropriate ways. But because we do not adeptly send out nonverbal signals used commonly in social interactions, we may need regulation strategies precisely so we can communicate to others that we are absolutely terrified even if we have no facial expression, or that we are thrilled to be part of a team project even if we do not display enthusiasm with our body language. Don’t leave neurotypicals guessing: Use techniques like emotions scales not just to modulate your reactions and behaviors but also to communicate your experiences.
The Neurological Limit: Stop-Gap Strategies
While ideally all of us on the autism spectrum will learn both the basics of socializing and the complexities of social cognition, we are still plowing through the world with autistic brains. This doesn’t mean learning comes to an end point. But we may need tailored strategies to keep ourselves safe.
My most popular strategy is the Safe Activities List. First you pre-determine a list of activities that are usually safe. Then, if someone approaches you and asks you to do something, you can politely decline and offer to do something on your Safe Activities List instead. You don’t have to completely ruin your social life by saying no all the time. When I was 14 years old, for example, a group of kids asked me out of the blue one day to get a soda after school. Since I didn’t have any friends, I was thrilled and said yes. Right outside the school building, their buddies were waiting, jumped me, and took my wallet.
I got my wallet back a few moments later. I don’t think they were awful kids. I am sure they just wanted to pull a prank. My sister said later, “Couldn’t you tell they were up to no good?” Succinctly, no. Maybe social skills training could have increased my ability to interpret their voices, their expressions, their body language. But since the social world is so vastly changeable, a Safe Activities List would have prevented at least some damage. I could have said, “I’m busy today but do you want to eat lunch together in the cafeteria tomorrow?” A sincere person will usually respect you and agree. A person with ulterior motives may increase the pressure and so the social clues may become more obvious–but if not, your Safe Activities List can reduce your risk level.
My book Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults  includes a whole chapter on social safety strategies. Whatever mix of strategies might work for you, the point is not that we are limited in our capacity to grow and learn over time. We must, however, face the realities of our unique ways of perceiving, interpreting, thinking, acting, and feeling that can get us into trouble in some contexts while we acknowledge that any deficit can simultaneously be a strength in a different context.
Attacking Social Vulnerability
I hope families, adults on the spectrum, and professionals reading this will be inspired to create the right mix of social skills training, comprehension strategies, and safety protocols needed to best promote a healthy and happy social life. But beyond all the strategies and lessons, it is vital to reduce social vulnerability, too. Frequently individuals on the autism spectrum leaving childhood and entering adulthood have no history of positive social interaction—none of those memories to draw on as you step both boldly and timidly into adulthood. Childhoods are spent in the OT office, not in the backyard with neighborhood kids. While other teens are going on dates and getting their driver’s permits, we are visiting the tutor to organize our school notebooks. Instead of starring on the basketball team, we escape from the gym for fear of being teased. We don’t remember our first friends –we remember the first time we avoided the school bully successfully.
When a person has no positive social experiences, the individual is at great risk for isolation, low self-esteem, mental health problems, and poor decision-making. One young man on the spectrum racked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt because an online “webcam” girl showered him with attention and asked him for lavish gifts in return. He didn’t realize he was being used. He just said, “No one ever wanted to talk to me ever before in my life.”
Parents, professionals, and teachers may need to help adults initiate and build upon social experiences that attack this type of sad and unfortunately common social vulnerability. This doesn’t mean the person will never experience loneliness or set-backs. But if you have some friends, some positive social outlet, some way to relate to other people that is satisfying, you are less desperate and make better choices for yourself in the long-term. This doesn’t mean violating a person’s social style. Many of us on the spectrum don’t want to or just can’t spend loads of time with other people. That’s OK. We still need to make the kinds of connections that will sustain us through life’s ups and downs.
I know a man who watched game shows all day and was extremely lonely to the point of depression. He heard about the Museum of TV & Radio nearby and started volunteering. He met a few others who are equally enthusiastic about TV shows, and he is much happier. No, he doesn’t “hang out” with them after volunteer hours or call them up on the phone. But he’s less isolated. He’s having fun. He’s out of the house. And he has made connections to others that have meaning and value to him, as he defines this.
Can’t think of anything to do? This is where another common autistic strength can come into play. What are your special interests? My local photo store offers a six-week photography class for $25. Many supermarkets offer free classes from how to make sushi to how to brew tea. A bookstore down the street has evening author talks. The university has star-gazing nights when they open up the space telescopes to the public. Volunteer. Take a math class at a community college just to keep your brain sharp. Public libraries usually have a slew of activities. Whatever your interests are, I am sure you can find something!
Remember: You don’t need perfect social skills for these activities. You can assume that the others in attendance share an interest in the activity otherwise they wouldn’t be there, so you can just talk about what you are doing. Participating will allow you to practice social skills like initiating conversations in an environment that is safe, conductive, and healthy. You may think based on what you see “popular” people doing that you should be looking for gorgeous people with glamorous lives. But the vast majority of people do not live like that. If you try a few activities that you enjoy, you will—over time—meet ordinary people who have similar interests.
One last note: In our culture, people are under enormous pressure to fall in love. Almost every song on the radio is about romance! But the fact is, plenty of people, on and off the spectrum, do not date and do not fall in love for a wide variety of reasons. Many adults are satisfied focusing on their careers, their hobbies, and sometimes their pets. Don’t succumb to the pressure to engage in social or romantic activities if you don’t want to or if you aren’t ready. You can use some of the strategies I mentioned above to combat loneliness. You can have a happy, comfortable life on your own.