Autistic Survival Guide/Developing Social Learning Skills

As an autistic person struggling with social situations, it often feels like there is a list of rules whose memorisation would solve all one's problems. Sadly, trying to memorise rules and remember them later is probably not the most helpful. A better technique is to try to understand the reasoning behind common neurotypical social behaviors and to teach yourself new skills in that context. To do so, it is helpful to adopt tools that best enable you personally to learn, understand, and apply these behaviors. Marc Segar explains that he has found success by always looking for new things to think about; however, for some people, simply thinking about things never actually solves a given problem, so returning to them with new approaches may be necessary. As such, this page provides a basic toolkit that autistic people can draw on when developing new social skills.

The Development Cycle edit

While hyperfocusing on solving social interaction problems is attractive, it is unfortunately destructive to the process of actually learning about social interactions. Simply spending time thinking things through in one's own head is often quite useful, but it's easy to waste that time trapped in logic loops and other circuitous, unproductive pathways. To escape such loops, questioning and testing the logic can help—you can learn a lot from doing this. If it is not possible to develop and test the logic, then finding something else to think about for a while is probably better than wasting your time. The basic method behind developing anything, from an invention to an idea, is to go through the phases of a development cycle. The phases of this cycle are 1) design, 2) build, 3) test, and 4) post-mortem assessment. For example, to develop a recipe for a great cup of coffee, you would start by thinking about the qualities of a good cup (designing), followed by making a cup yourself (building), tasting it (testing), and finding room for improvement (post-mortem). Restart the cycle by changing the recipe to make it better (designing), then repeat the process until you have a really great cup of coffee.

These steps may seem rather obvious, but it is very easy to lose track of where you are in this cycle, especially when developing more complex things like guidelines for social interaction. Skipping steps in the cycle or not doing them properly often results in wasting lots of time, and it is better speed up the process by shortening the time taken for each step while still performing them all properly.

The development cycle can also be supplemented by the "reduction algorithm". This posits that having figured something out, it is often possible to learn even more by eliminating the irrelevant from what you have learned and dissecting the rest to its simplest possible components. Those smaller components are often more applicable to radically different aspects of life, and they are also much easier to explain and to prove to other people.

Attitude edit

When trying to understand people and social situations, your attitude will go a long way. One of the most helpful things you can do is to adopt the perspective that nobody ever does anything without a reason, even if that reason may not be obvious to you. Try cultivating an easy manner and showing interest in a calm way. Never pretend to be all-knowing—if you want to talk to someone but don't understand what they are talking about, your ignorance is valuable. Admit that you don't know what the conversation is about but that you are curious. When confronted in good faith with an error you've made, accept criticism with sincere thanks. Moreover, gratitude is also your best weapon against sarcastic comments and rudeness. Take pains to find and fix your mistakes. Apologise for errors with a straightforward, unashamed manner without apologising for yourself—you are not your mistakes. Running away from social threats can mean surviving, but possibly running forever. On the other hand, running into threats can mean suffering serious loss. Instead, keeping a safe distance from threats can mean gaining the opportunity to study them. Remember: if life isn't like falling off a log, you're probably doing something wrong.

  • When you criticize someone, incorporate a compliment into your criticism with optional humor. This is better than lying or being evasive. Example, "You have a wonderful sense of musical phrasing. I didn't even notice that you kicked me twice. Can we dance again?"