Can an individual with an autism spectrum condition learn how to navigate the social world?
I’m featuring one of my favorite autism spectrum books today. I’ve referred to it in other articles I have written, and I love it for the simple fact that it details the WHAT of social challenges Asperger’s individuals face, but then proceeds with some very practical HOW tips.
This book is titled, Thinking About You Thinking About Me, by Michelle Garcia Winner.
Whether you are a teacher, a therapist, a parent, an adult on the autism spectrum, or a younger person on the autism spectrum, you can benefit from this material. I’ve written a previous article about how important it is for an individual on the autism spectrum to have a general matrix to understand what goes on in a conversation. Additionally, I would recommend that you read my article on conversation, the building block for relationships. Once you have thoroughly reviewed the above two articles, we can then go on to glean some very helpful insights and strategies from Ms. Winner’s marterial.
First, it’s helpful, if you are the individual with Aspergers, to ask yourself, “What are my own expectations about how people should behave when they talk to me?”
The encouraging thing to note here is that you generally do have expectations about how even NT’s should relate to you. She notes that with all the children on the spectrum she works with, they are able to tell her what is “normal” and what is not. For example, to make the point, she will sometimes get up on a desk in the middle of teaching a concept to a group of kids. They have a hard time concentrating because they are so surprised! She is then able to help them understand that, just as her physical posture and stance affected them, their behavior will affect other’s perceptions of them as well.
Check out Open and Closed Shoulders
We NT’s don’t realize this, but there is our body positioning and shoulders communicate to others, especially while in conversation. Think about how ants communicate with each other while they are on their way to their home. They touch antennae to communicate directions. I would encourage you, as an individual with Asperger’s syndrome, to take a field study tour of a local cafe or other public place. Actually, it’s more ideal if the public place has at least 2-3 people talking together in conversation. When two people are talking, if a third person approaches, one of two things is going to happen. If they are open to the person joining them, they will very subtly shift their position to open their shoulders, chest, and even turn their feet to ‘invite’ the person to join them. If, however, they are in an intense conversation, and don’t want to be bothered, they will maintain their same stance. In this case, you would take it as a sign not to talk to them. If you have something really important to tell one of them, you could say, “Excuse me, I just need to give you a quick message.”
Learn the Importance of Physical Space in Conversation
In addition to the above tips, it’s important that you get an idea of what is an acceptable ‘zone of comfort’ in relating to others, and for them relating to you. I have written an article about teaching personal space to children with Aspergers, and it’s just as helpful for young people and adults with autism spectrum as it is for children.
Here are some activities you can try in order to either teach or learn this concept:
a) Have a friend or family member stand in the middle of the room. When they say, “Go,”, you start walking toward them. Have them let you know when you get too close. On the flip side, you pay attention to when you start feeling uncomfortable. You can switch roles during this exercise, but it will give you a good idea about physical space.
b) Practice “invading” your friend or family member’s physical space or zone of comfort. Have them tell you how they felt when you were invading their space. Then switch roles. Talk about how you felt when they invaded your personal space. I hope you find these concepts helpful. I am indebted, as I said, to Michelle Garcia Winner for her top notch work in this field.
I would love to hear your ideas, tips, and comments. I will reply to every single one!