12 November, 2010

6. Mindfulness and modulation (a general look)

One time when I was making an earlier stage of this post, Fiona commented and defined social skills in the following way:

I think social skills are a cluster of related skills, not just one skill. Mainly I think it revolves around a) being able to read people via their body language and facial expression and tone of voice, and to be able to adjust you how deal with them appropriately based on that, b) being a good communicator; knowing how to bring up sensitive topics and assert yourself without increasing the level of conflict but being able to achieve a sort of win-win situation where both parties feel like they were treated fairly and got what they emotionally needed, c) being able to approach people and make friends without experiencing a lot of rejection.

Right now I would like to zoom in on b (I think c is what a lot of this series is about--rejection is an action undertaken by other people--and I may briefly address a because I think it's the "skill" that has the strongest case and it would be disingenuous for me to ignore it). If you are going to describe social skills as getting along with other people and being diplomatic, then you have to prove that normal people usually get along with other people and are diplomatic. You can't prove this, because almost everything that happens in the world shows that it isn't true. Besides, if all normal people had this type of "social skills" and all people with autism didn't, then people with autism wouldn't have social problems anyway--as long as they only interacted with normal people, they could rely on the normal people to adapt to them. Since this is not how things are, it can't really be true that b is a part of being normal and not-b is a part of having autism.

I actually do think there is a skill set that involves mindfulness and accommodating other people, but it is not particularly associated with normal people. Lots of normal people have it but lots of people with ASD have it too. In fact, I think that some people who have grown up being "weird" or "socially impaired" or "socially isolated" have an almost mathematical sensitivity to other people's feelings, because to them relationships feel more novel.

One time another person with ASD send me an email saying something like, "I'm really stressed and I have to write an email to my sister, but I thought I should write to you first because I know that you might get worried and think I'm mad at you if I don't email you back." This is a good example (and a lovely person), but a better exploration of the same thing was written by Luai and posted here:

I saw a report once about a study where autistic kids and NT kids were asked a series of questions about how they would act in certain situations; one of them was what they would do if they saw their mother crying. While the NT kids answered that they would go over and talk to her and hold her, the autistic kids almost universally said they would do something they knew she liked, like emptying the dishwasher, or making something for her.
And I love this, because it illustrates something I've always felt was true. If you don't know the social script, the set thing "everyone" does when someone is upset, or the set thing that "everyone" thinks is valuable, you have to think it through for yourself. You have to think, what makes person X happy? And this is why that boy caught bugs for you in seventh grade, and why I made a green alligator-shaped valentine for my crush in first grade, and why a friend of mine made a special "romantic dinner" for her boyfriend that consisted of pokemon mac-and-cheese and dinosaur chicken nuggets.

Sadly the article referred to going over to one's mother and hugging her as being the "right answer" (as in, "all the normal kids picked the right answer, but the autistic kids...."). >.<; I honestly don't know how people can continue to be so stupid.

Postscript: I like Fiona and she can have whatever opinions she wants. I don't want her to feel like a frog that I am taking apart.


  1. <dork>ZOMG! You mentioned me! Me! It's like I'm famous!</dork>

    Uh yeah, okay. Your argument seems less like "social skills don't exist" and more like "autism isn't really about lacking social skills" or "autism shouldn't be framed as simply lacking social skills".

    I'm not sure what I think about that.

    Also, in terms of how I defined it way back in that comment, certainly item b seems to encompass really advanced social things that not all neurotypical people are necessarily good at. I'd stand by (a) though. (C) is mostly a consquence of having (a), I think.

    I mean, I've certainly met NTs who lacked tact and weren't good communicators, but that does seem distinct from what people mean when they talk about autistic people lacking social skills. Maybe it's a matter of degree, and looking 'odd'.

  2. If that's what it seems like I'm saying, then I'm doing a terrible job.

    What I'm saying really is that social skills don't exist. This doesn't even have to just be about autism, although that's mainly what I'm writing about. Social skills don't exist like beauty doesn't exist. Other people may decide that someone is ugly, but usually there's at least one person who disagrees. I'm trying to write about the nature of connection, kind of, and its transcendence/variability.

  3. Oh wow. Then I really don't agree with you then.

  4. I just--and I may be misreading you--have gotten the impression that you consider yourself to be one of these people who "lacks social skills" or "has impaired social skills."

    But I really like you (and don't find you difficult to relate with or anything).

    I guess my problem with the whole idea of social skills being a cut and dry ability is that it seems to completely shut off and erase tons and tons of experiences of connection and that is what makes me upset. It tries to flatten life into something tiny.

  5. I mean, I am writing all this stuff as a way of saying "I like you" to you, and my camper Stephen, and my friend who sent me that email in case I might be worried that she was mad...and it feels really personal I guess and it sort of hurts and is weird to me that you don't agree

  6. I have a lot to say in response to this, but the thoughts are kinda all rushing into my brain at once and it's hard to put them in order.

    1. I don't think being likable is necessarily the same as having social skills. Because whether or not you like someone is a totally subjective thing.

    I certainly didn't like the kids who laughed when I fell down when I was in elementary school, for example. But I'm sure any social psych would have considered them to have social skills and me not have, since they had friends and I didn't.

    I don't know...it's just always seemed to me that there's all this stuff that everyone always expected me to know without being told, but I didn't, but that other people knew...somehow. So whether you call it 'social skills' or not, it's led me to feel like I'm missing something, and I've only learned as I've gotten older to approximate it and act less obviously weird so I wouldn't get punished for not knowing it.

    I'm reminded of A Wrinkle in Time, when Meg and Calvin and Charles were on Camazotz and they saw all those people moving in perfect rhythm, doing everything in sync. Those are neurotypicals. And Meg and Calvin and Charles, walking around, wondering how the hell they're doing everything timed so exactly, well that's people like us.

    2. I've kind of gotten off on a tangent, which I knew I was going to do. Back to being likable. Yeah, I think I've mastered the art of being likable. Considering how many people didn't like me as a kid, I figure I can consider that an adult accomplishment. I ran into this problem in a social anxiety group where no one believed I didn't have social skills, because I could be funny. But I had learned how to be funny[1], and it's not structured groups in which I have a problem with not knowing what to do socially. So the social anxiety group was pretty pointless in that regard.

    I figured if I had social skills, I wouldn't have been single for most of my adult life, since I'm female and bi and reasonably not-scary looking. It's supposed to be so easy for women to attract men, and not that I never have, but it's almost always been guys that I didn't really want who were after me, and damn few even of them. And even fewer women, though that's probably pretty understandable.

    And I figure that if I had social skills, I wouldn't find it so damned impossible to make new friends in a new town. But this is turning into a me bitching about me life and feeling invalidated rant even though I know you didn't intend to be invalidating in any way, so I'm going to go onto:

    3. I'm glad you like me and find me easy to relate to. I figure it's probably because whatever doesn't work for me with NTs does work with ASDs. My SIL once told me that my nephew doesn't get easily attached to people, yet he attached to me like a barnacle. And I didn't do anything special, I just tried to relate to him on his level, which basically came down acting silly when he acted silly. Which was easy and fun for me, since I like acting silly.

    In general I find ASDs easier to get along with than NTs in a lot of ways, since they appreciate direct communication, don't care about my stimming or whateverthefuck it is that I do with my hair or the fact that when I stand I rock back and forth on my heels constantly, and don't know what they're feeling without being told.

    4. Holy crap, I totally fucking monologued on your blog. Heh.

    [1] I went through a wanna-be class clown phase in middle school, because I wanted to be the kind of kid everyone gravitated toward. I've since learned to accept that I'm the exact opposite of that type of person.

  7. Oh no! I don't want to hurt you.

    I had a giant response to this which I emailed to your college address since it was too big for Blogger to swallow.

  8. I've been enjoying this serries of posts and all of the anlaysis, but I think you explained your social skills don't exist arguement best in one of the comments on this post. When you said, "autism doesn't exist like bueaty doesn't exist," I realized that what you meant was a paraphase of the old adage- social skills are in the eye of the beholder.
    Along that line, I espically liked your ancedote about kids reacting to their mothers' tears. The researchers were lazy. It was easy to determinet that the NT kids had the right answer. In order to see if the autitic kids had the right answer, they would have had to ask each mother, how do you feel when your son/daughter does x? My guess is they would have confirmed that it made them happy.