People with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) are known to be very genuine and honest. If they have the ability to communicate verbally, they typically “say it like it is.” This important diagnostic detail can help the rest of us to be more understanding and respond more effectively when they say things that we perceive as offensive, hurtful, unkind, disrespectful, or disobedient.
But it’s not enough to simply understand why they do what they do. Along with that, we can be working to help them better understand the SOCIAL CONTEXT; the people with whom they are interacting, and the thoughts, feelings, needs, experiences, and expectations that they bring to the interaction. One strategy for being socially effective is to think about others, and respond in a way that works for them. While this may seen disingenuous or insincere, or not “true to one’s self,” often individuals with ASD can understand this concept if we compare it to an actor or actress. In his or her lifetime, an actor may portray numerous vastly different roles, depending on the needs of the directors, the script, and the targeted audience. These roles may not accurately reflect who they are as real-life people, but they act out a role in order to be successful.
This does not mean that we can never be ourselves, or never tell someone exactly how we’re feeling or what we’re thinking. Again, the SOCIAL CONTEXT helps to determine what information we share with others. How do you respond when someone asks you, “How are you doing today?” In many social contexts, we would simply say, “Fine,” even if we’re not doing well at all. This is because we recognize that the person asking the question is simply extending a polite social gesture to acknowledge our presence and establish a quick connection with us. Their expectation is that we’ll respond that we’re fine, and when we repeat the question to them, they’re likely prepared to give the same response. To begin telling them about the awful day we’re having would be very unexpected, and would likely cause them to feel uncomfortable, and even to respond to us in a way that makes us feel socially awkward and unsuccessful.
How does the SOCIAL CONTEXT affect our responses? Consider again the question, “How are you doing today?” While in most situations we’d respond simply that we’re fine, would you respond differently if it was your therapist, spouse, or best friend asking the question? Most likely, those are people with whom you’d feel comfortable sharing your genuine thoughts and feelings. This is because of your close relationship with them, but perhaps more importantly, you know that they expect you to share your true inner self rather than to fake it.
So we’re often faced with a great dilemma. Does this mean we can rarely “be ourselves” if we want to be socially effective? Do we simply need to go about our lives meeting the expectations of others instead of expressing our genuine thoughts and feelings? Do we need to care more about what others think, or should we celebrate who we are even if others don’t appreciate that?
Keep reading next week for my thoughts on that important question. Over the next week, you can be thinking about this dilemma, and how you might explain it to people with ASD. What do they need to know in order to be socially effective? Feel free to share your thoughts on our blog at www.socialincites.com or on our Facebook page!