When I hear people, autistic or otherwise, talk about autistic social difficulties, they often say things along the lines of:
- “You and I just know all of these rules intuitively, but people with autism find them mysterious and have to learn them explicitly”
- “All of these rules that you neurotypicals pick up naturally are very very difficult for those of us on the spectrum”
There is a myth people who aren’t autistic just automatically know social rules, and that it’s only autistic people who need to put serious effort into learning them.
It’s not true. Neurotypical people have to learn all kinds of things on purpose. For instance:
- When people are applying to schools, or first learning how to apply to jobs, they are advised to do practice interviews. This is not special advice for the disabled; it’s standard advice for everyone
- Colleges have career centers aimed at teaching students how to get jobs
- Ask A Manager is a popular column about social skills for the workplace, for every role including management, employees, and job seekers. It’s not aimed specifically at people with disabilities, most of the articles are written assuming a neurotypical audience and most of the questions are asked by people without disabilities
- Fuck you, pay me is a popular talk about gaining the social skills to insist that your freelancing clients pay you for your work
- Everyone, not just autistic people, needs to learn a lot of skills which may or may not come naturally, in order to succeed in businesses
In personal relationships:
- Captain Awkward is a popular advice blog focused on personal relationships and boundaries. Many subscribers are autistic, but many are not, and it is not a disability-focused blog.
- Miss Manners is a long-running column about manners. She has been printed in newspapers for decades and has written several books. She is popular because a lot of neurotypical people feel like they don’t know the rules and want someone to tell them the rules
- Scarleteen, a popular sex ed site, has a lot of information on things like dating and relationships and how to talk about safer sex, because no one is born knowing those things
In the area of disability:
- A good percentage of people, autistic or otherwise, lack basic social skills needed to respectfully interact with people with disabilities
- For instance, they don’t know how to notice when repetition is communication, or how to listen to folks whose speech is unusual
- Or that it’s rude to take chairs away from wheelchair and mobility scooter users
- Or it it’s seriously invasive to touch mobility equipment without permission
- Or how to be honest with disabled children in therapy
- Or even more generally, how to notice and respond appropriately to the experiences of disabled peers
It’s true that there are many specific social difficulties that autistic people often have that people who lack autism generally do not have. For instance:
Receptive body language and tones of voice:
- Some autistic people have trouble understanding body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice
- This makes it hard to interact with people who assume as a matter of course that everyone understands what their body language and tones are saying, and that if you’re not responding, it’s because you’re choosing to ignore it
- Autistic people who have this problem have to learn strategies for compensating for it
- There are different approaches that some of us take (some people can explicitly learn how body language works by studying it, some people can learn to pick up on different cues, some people can learn how to guess based on context what someone might mean and ask explicitly, some people can move most of their interactions to text where it doesn’t matter, etc etc)
- Some autistic people have trouble with receptive language, and have trouble understanding what people say
- Some of us have trouble with expressive language, and can’t say the socially expected thing in the socially expected way even if we know what it is
- Some autistic people are unable to produce tones of voice or modulate volume in socially expected ways (some autistic people can learn this through practice/therapy; some can’t.)
- Language difficulties also can interfere with social skills acquisition because people learn these skills and expected modes of behavior through practice, and people whose receptive and expressive language is atypical tend to be excluded from contexts in which most people practice and learn these things
- Similarly to reading body language, different autistic people learn different ways of dealing with this.
- Some autistic people have trouble with voluntary motion, and may not be able to do some expected social gestures or movement even if they understand the rules perfectly
- Some autistic people get stuck in situations in which it is considered socially important to keep moving (eg: in line, in a movie theater, at the end of a ride)
- Some autistic people need to move in ways that are socially stigmatized in order to function
- Some autistic people do not have the motor control (or cognitive ability, there are several reasons this can happen) necessary to produce speech, and communicate using AAC devices, RPM, books of picture symbols, or FC. (Most neurotypical people (and probably most autistic people as well) lack the social skills necessary to interact respectfully with people who communicate this way. This creates a social difficulty that gets blamed on lack of speech, but which is actually caused by lack of respect.)
- Many autistic people are unable to tolerate the noises, sounds, smells, lights, or crowds in places that most people like to socialize
- Some autistic people can’t tolerate being outdoors for long periods of time
- This complicates socializing or business networking in a world that expects social interactions to take place in those kinds of settings
There are any number of other examples of ways that autistic people have to learn skills that neurotypical people usually do not have to learn. But that doesn’t mean that we are uniquely deficient, or that “having to learn social rules” is an autistic thing.
No one is born knowing the rules. Everyone has to learn the rules, and everyone has to learn some of the rules explicitly. Everyone learns how to interact with others over a period of years, and no one is good at it without practice. For neurotypical people, the need to learn social skills is treated as normal, expected, and honorable.
For autistic people, our need to learn social skills is treated as disgusting, defective, and in need of normalizing therapy.
People teach us that we autistic people, specifically, are bad at people and interaction and that this needs to be corrected. It’s not true. We are not uniquely bad at social interaction. We have specific needs to learn specific things.
Some of the social skills we have to learn are coping mechanisms for being heavily stigmatized. We have to learn these skills because something is wrong with society, not because something is wrong with us.
There are skills we have to learn differently because of physical differences between autistic and neurotypical people, but that is not something we are missing either. They treat us like we are neurotypical with missing pieces that need to be filled in, but this is not true. We are a different shape, and that’s ok.
(And there are also social skills that come more easily to autistic people than neurotypical people. Autism is not solely composed of difficulties.)
Everyone needs to learn how to interact with others, and it is a lifelong process. The ways neurotypical people learn social interactions are respected. The ways autistic and other neurodivergent people learn to interact with others should also be respected. The fact that autistic social learning is stigmatized is a problem with society, not autistic people.