One of the areas where those on the autistic spectrum experience difficulties is social interaction. Every autistic person is different and so experiences difficulties in their own unique way. Some on the spectrum may be confident in social situations, and so may be able to speak to people socially, others may find the whole experience overwhelming and so may struggle to be in social situations, and yet others may feel nervous or anxious in social situations and lack confidence.
My experience, both personally and professionally, has been that many of those on the autistic spectrum who say they don’t have a social problem do. They may be confident and perfectly happy to talk to others socially, but that isn’t the same as grasping and understanding social communication. This is the area that social communication difficulties falls into, so a confident person with autism may talk to others socially without any difficulties about how to start conversations, they just approach people and talk to people about what they want to talk to people about, they don’t necessarily think about how their behaviour is received, and whether they have just interrupted a conversation the person was having, or if the person didn’t want to talk with them. They usually also only talk about what they want to talk about, they aren’t really having a ‘conversation’ because they aren’t listening to the other person and attending to the other person’s needs within the conversation, they are focusing on what they want to say and talk about.
For me personally I struggle to know how to start conversations, I worry that I will appear rude if I approach others to strike up conversations, I worry that I won’t notice the cues given off by the person I’m talking to which should let me know whether they are listening and interested, and the cues they give off to say they want to end the conversation, or want to talk about something different. I don’t like that I can’t work out and predict the exact pattern that is to be followed in any one conversation. Often, once I’m in a conversation some of what I am concerned about happens. I struggle to figure out how to end the conversation, I struggle to remember that the conversation should be two-way communication, and so it normally ends up with me talking at someone about what I want to talk about, forgetting to ask questions and using other skills to open up the communication from the other person’s perspective. I am better at doing this in therapeutic settings, like one-to-one therapy sessions where I am doing this intentionally to gather information about how to help the person to feel better, but in ‘normal’ social situations I find it very difficult to remember to do these skills.
Social communication difficulties which those with autism have is more about lack of recognition of how social communication is supposed to go. Whereas most children non-consciously watch their parents, siblings and others around them and pick up how they are supposed to interact with others without needing to be taught many of these skills overtly. They will watch how their mother and father treat each other, how they instigate conversations, social cues they use, like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and personal space people give each other, eye contact they use, gestures they use, and facial expressions. It seems that those with autism don’t pay attention to these things in the same way growing up. They look at people more like looking at objects. They may notice certain types of patterns, or sounds, or gestures which somehow resonate, but this is detached from the context of social communication. Autism is often described as a context blindness problem. The person with autism seems unaware of the role context plays in situations.
I know from my own childhood experiences that certain sounds, or patterns of sounds would resonate for some reason, and I would replicate them, like whistling the sound, or I may feel compelled to copy certain movements that I saw, but I wasn’t making the connection with social communication. I was as likely to copy a pattern I picked up in a word or sentence that was used, as I was to copy a pattern I picked up in a bird song I heard.