Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rules to Socialize By

The Asperger's traits addressed in this post include:
*Getting misunderstood
*Too quiet or too talkative
*Difficulty expressing emotions appropriately
*Difficulty learning to relax
*Difficulty communicating
*Rule-bound behavior

Social skills are learned, and therefore social skills can be taught. Babies start learning social skills from day one. Babies know little else than that crying can result in their needs being met and that smiling and laughing can make their entertainment continue longer. People who have a personality defined by Asperger's traits often struggle throughout their lives to get a handle on social skills.

On the plus side, Aspies tend to be very good at learning by direct instruction. That's why so many Aspies are successful at work, likeable among their peers, and able to avoid "getting into trouble." The Aspies who have a moderate-to-good understanding of social conventions probably learned them, not by observation and mimicry, but by an intellectual understanding of culturally determined rules.

For example, when I was little, my mom told me over and over to look her in the eye. She had to know whether I was paying attention to what she said. Now to an Aspie, listening is for the ears, not the eyes. At times when my mom was scolding me, I thought that being forced to look her in the eye was part of my punishment!

Many years later, when my mom approached my doctor about the possibility that I had Asperger's syndrome, the doctor said Asperger's syndrome had never crossed her mind while she interacted with me, because I consistently made eye contact.

We Aspies can change outwardly if (1) we know what society's expectations are (2) we are motivated to change (3) we practice until it becomes comfortable for us.

So here's a write-up of a few rules that Aspies may not automatically know about. They are pretty safe to follow in any situation. Most of these habits took a lot of coaching from my family and friends before I got used to them - or even before I was convinced to try them! I am including the reasons for the rules, with the hope that it will motivate those Aspies who like their social skills as is. Many times, I have decided to change, more because I wanted to make the people I love more comfortable around me than because I was uncomfortable myself.

1. Smile at people when people look at you. This makes people feel that you welcome their presence.
2. Smile when you're getting your picture taken. That way, it looks like you're having a good time--which, hopefully, you are!
3. Look at people's faces when they are talking to you unless you're sure they don't mind if you listen while doing something else. People want to know you are paying attention, and they can read the expressions on your face even if you struggle to read their expressions.
4. When someone calls your name, respond quickly, preferably by answering out loud. If you don't, people will never know if you are ignoring them, didn't hear them, or were listening all along.
5. Make culturally appropriate eye contact. To the average American, anyone who doesn't look a person in the eye while speaking must be either rude or deceitful. An Aspie may avoid eye contact for other reasons: being distracted by other things to look at . . . feeling confused / embarrassed / tired . . . or just forgetting the importance of eye contact!
6. Say hello (or an equivalent greeting) when you enter a room, and say good-bye (or an equivalent greeting) when you exit. It's good manners. That's why. <grin>
7. Listen for feedback about your appearance. If people seldom compliment your clothes, haircut, or accessories, well . . . they are probably following the rule, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Check with a trusted friend in private to find out what people really think about the way you dress.
8. If you can't think of anything worth saying, say something anyway! This is called "small talk," and it shows people you care about them. Disclaimer for the literally minded: It's okay to be known as a quiet person, as long as you at least ATTEMPT occasionally to make small talk when you don't want to. Sociable people don't always want to make small talk either, but they try anyway because being friendly is really important - especially if you want to make friends.

How this topic applies to Christian living:
1 Corinthians 13:4-5
Love . . . does not behave rudely (NKJV).

Proverbs 18:24
A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.