The Social Human & The Art of Positive Communication for Autism
I met Nanna Juul Lanng while speaking at the conference in Denmark. This is her first column:
Human beings are per definition flock animals. There is no real way around this fact. Our success as a species is partially based on our superior communication skills which allow us to share our knowledge and experiences in a much more efficient way than any other animal on Earth. We have no natural physical weapons; no claws, no fangs, no spikes. Even our most incredible athletes are, in comparison to most animals our size, quite slow and not particularly strong. We’re so soft, fragile and vulnerable and to top all of this off we’re also naturally naked. Our physical features are, all in all, not very impressive.
But by learning, adapting, sharing and creating we have spread throughout this planet, and we have created a lot of the world we see before us today. We are, as humans, hypersocial beings. We are genetically coded for social interaction. We depend on each other, we seek the approval of our fellow men, and we judge each other by our ability to master these social skills and rules.
As most people believe, I am also confident that people on the spectrum of autism have “always” been around. As the majority of you also know we’re wired a little differently than the average man/woman. Unlike them, we are not born with all of the social skills that society has come to expect from us all. Most of us have a social drive; we crave attention just like anyone else, we want to be accepted, to be approved of and loved, but not always in the same amount and quite often not in the same way as them. Also some of us only crave that second word: acceptance, and then ask for nothing more than to be left in peace. This is not an article for the latter.
In order to do well in the world and in society, if that is what we wish to do, we attempt to adapt, we do our best to crack the code that no one seems to speak of but everybody knows, often with limited results. I was diagnosed two years ago, when I had just turned 19, and it thrilled me to know, that I was not alone in this struggle, even more-so to find people with ASD who’d done a lot better than I. But I also met a lot of people on the spectrum, afterwards, some even younger than me, who had already grown bitter from the constant battles and all the defeats in this social human world. I am not saying, that I can “fix” anyone, I can’t. If I had such an ability, I would have “fixed” myself long ago (I need better word for that) , and you’d see me hanging out at trendy clubs talking to very interesting and important people, luring them all in with my amazing skills. I’d be out catching great friends, like Ash catches pokemons… Which I’m not. However I have improved a lot, I can make friends, I can attract people, I am now able to benefit from social interaction, I can get people to listen most of the time, and if you’re interested, I would like to share those techniques and tips which have worked for me.
Letting down your guard and opening up
I’ve made tons of social mistakes over the years. I’ve been mistrusting of everyone, especially men, and I have often felt that this fight was a waste of my precious energy. I’ve gone through periods where I just couldn’t be bothered, especially in my mid-teens where I didn’t try at all, and as a consequence, I didn’t make any close friends. I was crying out for people to accept me as I was, but looking back I see, that I was guarded, slightly defensive and sometimes arrogant. I didn’t let people in, even though I was lonely. All this because I was afraid of failure – of being hurt and ridiculed. By the time I graduated from school, I’d grown tired of my own restrictions, all those bonds I’d gotten myself tangled up in.
I learned that without exposing myself, without opening up, no one was ever going to let ME in. How could they? They didn’t know the real me. How can you embrace something, you are not aware of? Especially when that something is guarding its true self like a starved dog guards its food.
Opening up is risky. You might get hurt. You will make mistakes. And some people will not like you, no matter what you do. But if you’re not willing to gamble, you won’t win anything.
Acknowledging your responsibility
Whenever you’re communicating with someone such as the cashier in the supermarket or a new friend, know that you are at any given moment just as responsible for the outcome of the communication as the other person you’re interacting with. How you behave does have an effect on that person. If you greet someone in a positive manner (by smiling, being polite and trying to be non-judgemental, etc.) you are much more likely to get a positive response back. But if your defensive mode is activated and you allow your fears and negativity to rule your thoughts and behaviour, most people will pick up on that and view you as a threat and unapproachable.
Be aware of the signals you’re sending. Try asking friends and acquaintances what they thought of you, when they first met you. If you don’t have any friends worth mentioning a good way to educate yourself on the effects of body signals is to experiment when you’re out in public. Pretend and observe. If you behave one way, how do people react to you? If you behave another way, then what?
As for online communication as good (though occasionally annoying when overdone) way avoid appearing aggressive or insensitive and cold is by using positive emoticons or simply by letting people know that you’re are merely joking and/or you mean no harm. If you choose to go for expressive, written sounds like ‘haha’, be aware that many on the spectrum have a difficult time telling whether someone is laughing with them or at them – especially online.
Ask for help when you need it!
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your shortcomings. We all have them. We all have difficulties and if you’re willing to admit them you just might be on your way to move forward. If someone (when you’re out with friends, colleagues, or any other kind of social situation) says something, and you’re not sure what they mean by it, ask! Something as simple as: ‘I’m not sure if I understood you right, could you explain it, please?’ or ‘could you rephrase that?’ works on most people. Try not to make a big deal out of it, even if it did sound offensive to you at first. Give them a chance to explain themselves, before you judge. 9 out of 10 times, people mean no harm, but they may have a crude sense of humour and are not aware of its possible effects on others.
Don’t play the blame game
So, your friend or acquaintance has just said something ‘stupid and offensive’. Bite your tongue and be quick about it before all those automatic, nasty thoughts slip out. You might be tempted to call someone an idiot, moron, imbecile, bastard or what have we, but if you’re interested in having a nice, positive and rewarding conversation, it is most often best not to stick rude labels on them. You might have misunderstood them.
Name calling will make most people close up like a clam poked with a stick. Also they might be better at you at offending and your slip-up might backfire big time!
Also, when discussing try to not to indirectly blame people. Most people do this, I certainly do, but it doesn’t lead to rewarding debates, only to verbal war. Instead of saying things like:
‘You hurt me’
‘You’re not making sense’
‘Are you retarded?’
…you could try shifting the blame, like:
‘I don’t think that’s right, because…’
‘That hurt me’ / ‘I was hurt by what you said’
‘I don’t understand your reasoning’ / ‘I’m not sure I get what you’re trying to say’
‘…’ (Don’t poke the clam. It won’t like it. You cannot get your point across, when you’ve contributed to making the other person withdraw into him-/herself.)
People on the spectrum are notorious truth-seekers, but we are often also unyielding and stubborn, which can prevent us from comprehending the entire truth. And then sometimes, there is no definite truth, only opinions.
We all mess up sometimes. Hurting others at some point is almost inevitable when socializing. Don’t be the person, curled up in your sofa whilst staring angrily at the phone or computer screen, just waiting for the other(s) to apologize first. It takes two to tango – be the better man/woman and get on with it. Being a good communicator is also about admitting that you’ve slipped up. If you want to preserve the friendship or maybe just a tolerable relationship with a co-worker, you have to sacrifice your pride once in a while. Even when you think it’s not your fault, because you were ‘right’!
It will take time and it doesn’t work on everybody
Even the most skilled NT gifted with a sharp eye and a silver tongue cannot succeed in every conversation. Some people are difficult to speak with, some will use any given opportunity to put you down, due to their own insecurities and ignorance and, well, there may be a thousand reasons as to why communication goes wrong. Know that it is not always your fault. The most important lesson, I’ve ever learned when it comes to socialisation, is forgiving myself.
None of this will ever come naturally to me. All that ‘sensing and evaluating how far you can go and how to say your honest opinion without sounding like a bastard’ is still difficult. But if you keep trying, you will eventually learn something and from there you may move even further. Be yourself, but more importantly, be a person you can be proud of, be brave enough to be you and don’t be ashamed of failing. We’re all different, neurotypical or not, we all have a lot to learn, and there’s no better way of learning than by doing unfortunately. Know your limits, remember to recharge, think about yourself because that will make consideration for others that much easier.
Nanna Juul Lanng is a 21 year old woman living in Randers, Denmark. She is diagnosed with Autism.