Autism, Employment, and Small Talk

I am completely unable to navigate small talk.  I am great at introductions, public speaking, etc.  I just can’t seem to have a conversation that works.  Worse, I am often totally misunderstood.  Walter, Self Employed, Watchmaker (excerpted from Aspergers on the Job, by Rudy Simone).


Have you ever seen ants on a wooded path?  They parade down the path, and as they meet, they touch their antennae, communicating with each other.  That’s what small talk does for neurotypicals.  Small talk helps them feel comfortable with each other, builds relationships and trust, and helps them get along.

Now, have you ever heard of the science experiment in which mice receive random shocks?  After a while, they are stressed beyond belief.  Small talk is like those random electric shocks that make autism employment incredibly stressful for adults with Aspergers and high functioning autism.

Rudy Simone addresses small talk in her book, Aspergers on the Job.   Why is it so hard for people with Aspergers to tolerate?

In her chapter, The Big Consequences of Small Talk, she explains that people on the autism spectrum are practical people with narrow interests.  So it makes no sense to them to talk about something they aren’t interested in.  Second, small talk means different things to non-Aspergians/autistics versus Aspies.  Whereas small talk means safety and security to neurotypicals, small talk signals danger to Aspies.

Here are some tips from Rudy Simone for employees dealing with small talk and autism employment:

  1. Recognize the why behind your hostility toward small talk.  The information above should help both you and others understand why it’s hard for you.
  2. You can learn some short responses to “get you through” small talk.  Talking briefly about the sports or about the weather may take the pressure off of you to say something more creative, and you’ll gain a level of acceptance.
  3. Don’t judge non-autistics.  Realize that small talk is their way of communicating with each other.  While you don’t have to engage in it, don’t come across as judging others, because they’ll pick up on it.  [And non-autistics should not judge you, either]
  4. You may be able to shift the “small talk” to something more interesting.  But do it gradually, without being condescending.
  5. Start a blog.   Many adults with Aspergers are very gifted writers.  As you learn to express yourself in writing, you’ll perhaps gain confidence with expressing yourself in person.  And you’ll find that you connect with like minded, affirming Aspies and non-Aspies on the web.
  6. Holiday parties and other social outings can be stressful, but you may regret not going if you don’t try.  Socializing takes practice and training.  Seek advice from someone about what to wear.  Go to the outing with a trusted friend or partner.
  7. Seek social skills training help when you need it, or read books that will help you gradually improve your social interaction skills.  Here are some suggested books and sites:
    1. The Hidden Curriculum
    2. Improve Your Social Skills
    3. How to Talk to Anyone
    4. Penelope Trunk’s articles on autism, aspergers, and employment

Here are some other articles you may find helpful –

Actually Autistic Blogs

Free Conversation Starter Tips

How To Small Talk, Even When You Don’t Care, by Michael Owen

What are some tips, thoughts, and resources you have about autism, employment, and small talk?  Please share them below!

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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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