Although it is common for people to refer to autism as a ‘spectrum’, implying that it presents itself in a diverse variety of ways, most people actually have a very narrow image of what an autistic person is like. A central feature of this standard picture of autism is the idea that an autistic person has poor social skills. In fact, many people seem to see this as the defining feature of autism – as far as they are concerned if you have good social skills then you are, by definition, not autistic.
Until a few years ago, I shared this standard image of autism. However, once I started to learn more about autism, I realised that it is a much more complex condition than most people realise and it affects different people in very different ways. It was through this learning that I came first to suspect and then to become certain that I am autistic. This eventually led to me getting an assessment and being formally diagnosed with autism last summer.
Like many autistic people, I don’t fit the standard image of what autism is. For us, the most common reaction that we get when we tell people we are autistic is some combination of confusion and disbelief. We have all been told, “you don’t seem autistic” – sometimes as a fairly innocent (but still inappropriate) expression of confusion, sometimes more as an accusation of lying, and worst of all, sometimes as a misguided attempt at a compliment.
So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts to try to help spread a broader (and more accurate) understanding of what autism is. My hope is that this will help people who are not autistic to have a better understanding of people who are. Also, maybe it will help more people like me to realise that they are autistic and take their first step towards a better understanding of themselves.
In this first post, I’m going to talk about social skills. I will explain how it is in fact possible for autistic people to have good social skills and argue that despite this, what we all experience are social difficulties (which, as I will explain, are a very different thing to poor social skills).
Let’s start by looking at where the standard picture of autism comes from.
Once, I wanted to learn more about a mental health condition that some friends had been talking about. I searched online and read the descriptions on Wikipedia, the NHS website, various psychiatry websites and so on. They all said roughly the same thing.
Then I wanted to read about it from the perspectives of some people who actually have the condition, so I searched again and found some blogs. What I found on the blogs was very different to what I had read on the other websites (and just like the other websites, the blogs all had very similar descriptions of the condition to each other). The blogs emphasised totally different features of the condition to the other websites. And even when they talked about the same features, they described them in very different ways.
There’s a simple reason for this. The other websites were describing what it is like to interact with a person who has the condition, whereas the blogs were describing what it is like to be a person who has the condition. Since most descriptions of conditions involving the mind are written by people who don’t have the condition, very little of the actual experience of having the conditions filters through to the general population’s understanding of what the conditions are.
Most people’s understanding of autism comes from sources such as:
One consequence of all this is that autism and other conditions tend to be thought of in terms of a person’s ability to perform certain roles, rather than their experience of performing those roles. In other words, all that is taken into account is whether or not someone can do something, not what it is like for them to do it.
The reality is that many of us autistic people can in fact do many of the things that autistic people supposedly cannot do. And, to an external observer, the sight of us doing these things is often indistinguishable from the sight of a non-autistic person doing them (hence, “you don’t seem autistic”). However, the internal experience of doing them is often very different.
Clinical descriptions of many conditions affecting the mind tend to state that you do not have the condition unless your differences cause ‘significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning’ (or something similar). In other words, if you are able to perform the roles that are expected of you, then you don’t have the condition. If you have a job, perform well at work and maintain good relationships with friends and family, then you can’t be autistic.
Note: before I go any further, I would like to make something clear. There are many autistic people who have difficulties that I do not. I am not in any way trying to erase their experiences. I am simply saying that as long as the inability to perform particular roles is seen as a defining feature of autism (rather than a common consequence of autism), then a large amount of autistic people will be left out of the common understanding of autism.
Last year, Channel 4 aired a show called ‘Are You Autistic?‘. At one point in the programme, a group of autistic women went speed dating with a group of non-autistic men. The men were not told that the women were autistic. At the end of the activity, the men were asked how they found the dates and they talked about how they had enjoyed chatting to the women. Then they were told that the women were autistic. They were shocked – they had had no idea. Afterwards, the women talked about their experiences of going on the dates. They all agreed that they had found it exhausting. Their minds had had to work overtime to perform in this difficult social situation. One said that she felt like she needed to go home and lie down.
This is a perfect example of why thinking about autism in terms of ability to perform roles doesn’t make sense. All of these women were perfectly able to perform the social role of a person on a date. They made interesting conversation, asked questions, told anecdotes, laughed in the right places, used body language effectively and so on. In other words, they demonstrated good social skills.
However, the interview with them afterwards clearly demonstrates that while they have good social skills, they were all experiencing social difficulties during this activity. The internal experience of the speed dating was challenging and draining for them in a way that goes beyond the stress or anxiety that a non-autistic person might feel in that situation.
Let’s talk about some of the specifics.
Social skills is a very broad concept, covering any skills a person has that help them to navigate social situations. This includes the following:
An understanding of the social rules and social conventions in different situations (e.g. What kind of behaviour is expected at work, on a date, at a funeral and so on? What kind of responses are expected when other people say or do certain things?)
An ability to conform to the social rules/conventions in different situations (Can you behave appropriately when you are a customer in a shop? Or when you are at a job interview?)
An ability to read other people (Can you work out other people’s feelings, thoughts, intentions, motivations etc. without them directly telling you?)
An ability to read and respond to situations (Let’s say you go to meet a group of friends. Shortly before you arrive, two of the friends have a big argument in front of the rest of the group. When you arrive, do you pick up on the tension? Are you able to work out what has happened? Do you adjust your behaviour accordingly?)
An ability to improvise in new and unexpected social situations.
Conversational skills (Are you good at having two-way conversations? Do you know when to speak and when to listen? Can you ask good questions? Can you make people laugh? Can you make small-talk? Can you make someone who is upset feel better? Can you gain people’s trust? etc.)
Communication skills (Can you convey information to other people effectively?)
Teamwork (Can you work effectively with other people?)
Note that some of the items in the list above relate to empathy (specifically a type of empathy called ‘cognitive empathy’). The relationship between empathy and autism is a massive topic which I plan to write more on in the future, so I’m not going to go into more detail about it here.
The list above is not intended to be comprehensive. There are lots of other social skills that I’ve missed out. However, there is one important point that I would like to make:
All of these skills can be learnt!
Okay, let’s talk about learning and different types of learning. I’m going to use language learning as an example.
During the first few years of life, most children learn the language or languages that are being spoken around them (or, in the case of sign languages, being signed around them). Most of this language learning happens automatically, with very little conscious effort on the part of the child.
I am not talking here about reading and writing, which usually have to be taught by adults and involve a fair bit of conscious effort. I am just talking about speaking (or signing) and understanding spoken (or signed) language.
It is true that teachers and parents/carers often intervene to teach certain rules (like ‘Don’t end a sentence on a preposition’, or ‘Don’t start a sentence with ‘and”). However, these rules generally don’t reflect how the language is actually spoken (which is why they have to be taught).
Putting those caveats aside, for most children, if they grow up hearing (or seeing) people speak a certain language, they won’t be able to help learning it. Even if they actively tried not to learn the language, they wouldn’t be able to avoid it. The language is just automatically and mostly unconsciously picked up from their surroundings.
This is very different to the way that we learn new languages later in life. As adults, we learn new languages consciously. We have to put in lots of conscious effort to learn the rules of the language’s grammar, to memorise the vocabulary, to master the pronunciation, and so on.
Learning languages consciously is much more difficult than learning them unconsciously. People who learn consciously tend to learn the language more slowly. Also, they tend not to reach such a high level of fluency as native speakers.
However, learning a language consciously does not actually place an upper limit on how well you can learn it. It is possible for someone who learns a language later in life to become as fluent as a native speaker. It takes a lot of work, but it can be done and it does happen.
Another important point to note is that people who learn the language consciously may end up with a much better conscious understanding of how the language works than those who learn it unconsciously. Generally, a native speaker will unconsciously know what the rules are, but they may not actually be able to tell you what the rules are. They can tell when something is wrong and can tell you how to correct it, but they might not be able to tell you what rule has been broken.
Let’s look at an example.
When I was learning Spanish, I found out something interesting about English that I had never noticed. In English, there is no infinitive for the word ‘can’. An infinitive is the ‘to _____’ form of a verb (‘to be’, ‘to do’, ‘to swim’, ‘to have’ and so on). There is no such thing in English as ‘to can’. We can say, “I would like to swim“, or “I would like to have an apple”, but we can’t say, “I would like to can juggle”. Instead, we have to use the alternative phrase ‘to be able to’ and say “I would like to be able to juggle”.
Let’s imagine that before I learnt this I had heard the following conversation:
Person A: “I can juggle”.
Person B (juggling): “I can juggle too!”
Person C: “Amazing, you can teach me? I would really like to can juggle.”
I would have instantly recognised that what person C said did not make sense. And I probably would have been able to tell that what they meant was, “I would really like to be able to juggle”, so I could have corrected them. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to explain why what they said was wrong. Although, unconsciously, I must have known that there is no infinitive for ‘can’, I wasn’t consciously aware of it. In fact, when we learn languages consciously we don’t usually learn about infinitives at all – I didn’t even know what an infinitive was until I started learning Spanish. Every native speaker clearly has an unconscious understanding of what an infinitive is, but we don’t actually consciously learn about them until we learn languages later in life.
So what has this got to do with autism and social skills?
Unsurprisingly, learning social skills works in a similar way to learning spoken or signed language. Why is this unsurprising? Because being able to communicate through language is a social skill.
Starting in early childhood, and continuing throughout life, we pick up social skills from our surroundings. Just by being around other people and participating in and observing social situations, we unconsciously learn a great deal about social rules and conventions, how to behave, how to talk to people, how to make friends, how to deal with difficult people, how to get what we want from people, how to comfort people and so on.
For some reason, autistic people seem to do less of this unconscious learning of social skills than non-autistic people. There are a few possible explanations for this:
The first possible explanation is that there is something about the way that an autistic person’s brain develops which somehow reduces their ability to automatically learn social skills from their social experiences. In other words, even if they have the same social experiences as a non-autistic person, they won’t be able to unconsciously pick up as many social skills from those experiences.
The second possible explanation is that autistic people have fewer social experiences and therefore less opportunity to learn social skills. Autistic people generally find social interactions intense and overloading. Therefore, even though they may want the company of others, they may find themselves avoiding social situations in order to prevent overload or social anxiety. Over many years this may mean that they end up with a lot less ‘social data’ to learn from than non-autistic people.
Finally, autistic people may find it harder to learn social conventions because some social conventions have been formed around the needs of non-autistic people and therefore following these conventions does not come as naturally to autistic people.
For example, I have noticed that non-autistic people often have conversations that rapidly change topics without ever exploring any one topic in detail, whereas autistic people often prefer to talk about each topic for longer and in more detail. Therefore, autistic people can find it difficult to participate in the first type of conversation because it is less interesting to them. If the social convention was to have more of the second type of conversation, then it might be non-autistic people who found it difficult. In other words, it is hard to fit in in a world that was not made for you.
It may be that all of these factors contribute, along with others. The important thing here though is that, for whatever reasons, autistic people tend to learn fewer social skills unconsciously.
However, just like language, social skills can be learnt consciously.
As a child and especially as a teenager, I spent a lot of time analysing social situations. Now, of course all young people spend time doing this. They might spend time thinking about the best way to impress the person who sits next to them in French class, or replaying in their head that time when they said something really embarrassing and thinking about smooth things they could have said instead. All children do these things, and of course we continue doing them as adults. However, from talking to other people about their experiences, it is clear to me that what I was doing went far beyond what most people do.
As a teenager I put a huge amount of time and energy into observing, analysing and learning from social situations. I would pay careful attention to the different situations that arose, how different people acted in them, and the different responses that they got. I would notice similar situations that would repeat themselves and I’d observe the different strategies that people would use and make note of which ones were successful and which ones weren’t. I would consciously and explicitly work out rules about how people liked other people to behave and then I would try to work out the underlying reasons why different behaviours got the reactions they did. I paid attention to who was popular and unpopular and what they did differently. I would try out different strategies, carefully note the results and then adjust my model of the social world accordingly as I went along.
If this seems like weird and unnecessary behaviour to you, then that’s because most people don’t need to do this. Most people pick up these social skills unconsciously, without even trying – like a child learning their native language.
To be clear, I am not saying that most people learn all of their social skills unconsciously. Everybody consciously learns some things. For example, every child will have experiences of saying or doing something inappropriate and being corrected by an adult. I am also not saying that autistic people don’t pick up any social skills unconsciously. I am sure that there are lots of things I’ve learnt without thinking about them. What I am saying is that on average non-autistic people seem to unconsciously pick up a lot more social skills than autistic people do, and the only way for an autistic person to catch up is to consciously think about things that most people never have to.
The consequence of all the time and effort I put into learning social skills was that, slowly but surely, over the years, I got better at it. And I’m still getting better at it. At this point I would say that my social skills are probably pretty similar to those of most people around me.
It is widely acknowledged that due to autistic people’s ability to focus intensely on one thing, and our attention to detail, many of us are able to learn a great deal about certain topics or become highly skilled at certain tasks when we set our minds to them (the stereotypical examples are trains and maths). It shouldn’t be surprising that this can also apply to learning social skills. I think the reason that, for many people, it is surprising, is that social skills are often thought of not as a set of skills that can be learnt but rather as an innate ability that you either have or you don’t.
I think that there are a lot of autistic people who have consciously learnt social skills in a similar way to me, and are able to handle social situations just as well as the non-autistic people around them (for example, the women on the Channel 4 documentary). The consequence of this is that we “don’t seem autistic” to most people, since their understanding of autism is based around the ability to perform roles. We are less likely to be diagnosed as autistic, we are less likely to realise that we are autistic, and when we do realise we are less likely to be believed.
Although there are clearly disadvantages to having to learn social skills in this way, I think there are some situations where having done so may offer an advantage. I said above that although native speakers will generally have an easier time communicating than people who learnt the language consciously later in life, the people who learnt consciously may be better able to explain how the language works. Similarly, an autistic person who has gone through the process of consciously learning how social situations work may be better at consciously analysing the social dynamics around them and may be better able to articulate what is going on, compared to a non-autistic person who has a similar level of social skills.
This may lead some autistic people to be viewed as socially insightful people, which makes them fit even less well with the standard picture of an autistic person. Therefore, it may be that something which is actually a consequence of their autism could make a person less likely to be seen as autistic.
Having poor social skills is widely seen by the general public, and even by many professionals working with autistic people, as a core feature of autism. Therefore, autistic people who have average or above average social skills are less likely to be diagnosed. The main reason for this is that it is less likely that they or the people around them will realise that they are autistic. Also, if they do realise, they will have a harder time convincing healthcare professionals to refer them for an assessment. And even if they do manage to get an assessment, their social skills may lead to an incorrect result.
The fact that autism diagnosis is biased in this way reinforces the inaccurate ways that we think of autism. A person may know several people who are autistic, some with poor social skills and others with good social skills. However, if they do not know that the ones with good social skills are autistic, then they will form an unbalanced picture of what autism is. Scientists and doctors who are researching autism may compare people who are diagnosed with autism to people who are not diagnosed with autism. If diagnosis is biased in the first place, then these samples will not be representative, and the results of the research will reinforce the biased diagnoses. In other words, there is a vicious cycle.
This may have particularly bad consequences for autistic women and girls. The proportion of males diagnosed with autism is much higher than the proportion of females. This could simply be because autism is more common in males than females, however an increasing number of people are beginning to suspect that it is actually because autism diagnosis is biased against women and girls.
Because of social and/or biological differences between males and females, autism tends to manifest in different ways in boys and girls. Since the beginning of autism research, there has been much more of a focus on the way that it presents itself in boys, meaning that the standard description of autism tends to fit autistic boys much better than autistic girls. This, in turn, leads to fewer girls being diagnosed, which compounds the problem.
One example of this may be that because a greater social expectation is placed female children (or children perceived to be female) to develop social skills than male children (or children perceived to be male), autistic girls are likely to do more conscious learning of social skills than autistic boys. If this is true then it would mean that a higher proportion of autistic girls than autistic boys fall into the “you don’t seem autistic” category of autistic people, leading to a lower diagnosis rate for girls.
So where does all this leave us in terms of understanding the relationship between autism and social skills? Hopefully I have managed to convince you that a person can be autistic and have good social skills. However, it is clearly also true that there are many autistic people who do have relatively poor social skills. Certainly, having problems with social skills is much more common in autistic people than it is in the general population. So how do we reconcile these facts into a unified understanding of autism?
I think the first thing that is important to realise is that there are almost no characteristics that are common to all autistic people. Rather, there is a long list of characteristics which are more common in autistic people than they are in the general population. For example, many autistic people have a fascination with numbers. This is certainly a characteristic that is more common in autistic people than in the general population. But there are also loads of autistic people who have very little interest in numbers, and that doesn’t make them any less autistic.
Also, there are many cases where the underlying nature of autism can have opposite effects on different autistic people. For example, autistic people tend to be more sensitive to being touched. For some autistic people this leads them to avoid being touched completely because they find the experience so overwhelming. Other autistic people actively seek it out because they enjoy the intense experience. In fact, many parents of autistic children talk about how their children will run up to strangers and hug them.
To an external observer, it may be hard to believe that a child who refuses to be touched by anyone and a child who is constantly hugging strangers could both have the same condition. However, if we look at the two children’s experiences, rather than how they behave in social situations, we would see that there are actually huge similarities. They both experience a hyper-sensitivity to touch, the difference is just that one child likes it and the other doesn’t.
Finally, I think it is important to realise that the emphasis that has been placed on social interaction as a central aspect of autism is a direct result of the fact that autism has been described in terms of what it is like to interact with autistic people rather than what it is like to be autistic. Personally, I know that social interactions are certainly one area of my life that have been greatly affected by my autism. However, there are also many other areas of my life that are affected by it, and I wouldn’t necessarily think of social interactions as the main one. Of course, most of these other aspects of autism can only be directly experienced by autistic people ourselves, whereas our social interactions can be directly experienced by other, non-autistic, people. Since it is non-autistic people who have so far had the major say in how autism is defined, it is perhaps not surprising that social interactions have always been top of the list (in fact, the sensory differences, which any autistic person is well aware of, have only been added to diagnostic criteria in the last few years).
So, to summarise, it is probably true that all autistic people experience some kind of difficulties related to social situations – in particular finding them intense and overwhelming. Some autistic people also have poor social skills – something which can easily be observed by the people who interact with them. This may be a direct result of their autism, or it might be a consequence of avoiding social situations due to their intensity. Other autistic people have good social skills and, to the people who meet them, may not seem like they are having any social difficulties at all. Finally, although social interactions are widely seen as the main aspect of life that is affected by autism, for many autistic people it is just one of several areas of their lives which are affected. Some of these other aspects of autism (such as sensory differences) may have been overlooked because they cannot be experienced directly by non-autistic people.
I hope that this post has helped to shed some light on autism and social skills. In my next post I will probably look in more detail at empathy – what it is and how it interacts with autism. For now, if you have any questions, comments or ideas for future posts please let me know in the comments section below.