What Everybody Ought To Know About Relating on the Autism Spectrum

I remember watching a show called Northern Exposure. One of the characters in the TV show was a “Bubble Man” who could not live outside his bubble because his immune system could not handle regular germs.

I wonder how many individuals on the autism spectrum sometimes feel this way: allergic to the confusion that comes from trying to make sense of the social landscape around them.

Everyone Has To Communicate

Whatever you may feel, you have to admit that the social world is all around us. My mission on this blog is to bring hope, understanding, and solutions to help you better make sense of it all. As I find different material and strategies, I will always share them with you.

auutism aspergers social thinking

We All Have Different Brain Smarts

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Albert Einstein, Beethoven, LeBron James, and Walt Disney were/are all intelligent people. However, they all had areas in which they stood out:

  • Einstein stood out for his scientific creativity
  • Beethoven was remarkable for his musical talent
  • LeBron James amazes us with his sports abilities
  • And Walt Disney created a world of wonder with his artistic and commercial talents.

In the same way, you and I have different brain smarts. For many individuals on the autism spectrum, the area of social relating is one area that your brain may be more weak in. It’s important that you recognize and celebrate your strengths while being proactive at personal growth in your areas of weakness.

Social Thinking Is The Hard Wire Programming Needed For Communication

The building block of understanding social relating is wrapped up in Michelle Garcia Winner’s concept called social thinking.

Social thinking refers to the process of thinking your own toughts and thinking about the thoughts of others, an figuring out how to make other people thionk the way you want them to think about you.

Before we go any further, I want to give you an analogy:

Think about the game of Pokemon.

It’s one thing to play the game.

But before you play the game, you have to understand the characters, their characteristics, and the rules of the game. In other words, you have to know the mindset behind the game.

Then you can play the game.

In the same way, before you can “act” social, you have to “think to figure out how to be around other people. And the really important part of being social is thinking about other people and what they’re thinking about you.”

Social Thinking Is Like Math

Ms. Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke have given us this analogy in their book, Socially Curious and Curiously Social: A Social Thinking Guidebook for Bright Teens and Young Adults.

When you think about it, “being social” is kind of like doing calculus. Only you may think that calculus is actually easier!

However complicated it may seem, social thinking can be learned.

Before you can perform calculus equations, you have to learn the basic principles of addition and subtraction: then algebra, then geometry, then trigonometry. You have to start with the most basic concepts and build from there.

Beginning Formulas

Social Effectiveness = Thinking + Doing

The idea here is that you have to learn both how to think about being social as well as the actual social skills. You may have been in different social skills groups, or you may have watched different TV shows and thought that all you have to do is write a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for social situations. But you also have to think about how to be effective in applying those do’s and don’ts.

Here’s another way to think about social skills:

Good social skills = Sharing Space Effectively (with your Words, your Eyes, and your Body).

When you are playing Pokemon or any other video game, you are continuously adjusting your moves based on feedback the game is giving you, right?

Formula A: Unexpected behaviors lead to uncomfortable or weird thoughts

I want you to imagine that you go to class. The teacher comes in wearing no clothes and stand on top of the desk. I’m guessing you would have some uncomfortable thoughts, right?! I sure hope so!

Formula B: Expected behaviors lead to good/ok/normal/neutral thoughts

On the other hand, if the teacher comes in wearing his/her ‘teacher’ clothes, and stands in front of the class behind the lectern, I imagine that you have neutral thoughts about the teacher.

Fact: Behaviors Influence Thoughts, Which Then Influence Feelings

Here’s an example. Let’s assume that you are new to a group of people. You don’t know me, but I take the time to ask you questions about yourself, to introduce you to other people, and to invite you to a future event. Hopefully, you will think that I was kind to do that, and you will then feels happy, calm, and peaceful.

On the other hand, let’s assume that I make fun of you when you are new to a group of people. Or that I tease you and make you feel left out. You then think, “What a jerk!”, and you feel angry, sad, and embarrassed.

It’s important to realize that our actions are always influence the thoughts and feelings of those around us, just as their thoughts and actions are affecting us. As you become more aware of this, and make the effort to think and learn about the process, you will become more effective at social communication.

In the same way, you and the people around you can influence each other by the way you use your words, your eyes, and your body.

The challenge, of course, is figuring out what types of words, what type of eye contact, and how we share space with our bodies produce expected versus unexpected behaviors.

The good news is that becoming aware of this process is the first step, and that there is a wealth of social thinking material you can learn from. You can check out my recommended books on this site, or you can also visit Michelle Garcia Winner’s site. Commit to making social thinking a lifetime project.

Learn a little bit every day, put what you learn into practice, and you will make more progress than you ever thought possible!

photo credit: Search Engine People Blog

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I'm Steve Borgman. I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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