Welcome to this week’s In Therapy installment of my Autism Series.
If you haven’t read last week’s post, click here to read it. I spoke about life milestones and how these affect both neurotypicals and people on the Spectrum. I also highlighted the effects in another post (read it here).
In this week’s post, I want to tackle a big topic: social communication and how this is worked out by people on the spectrum. This is a very big topic, and therefore I don’t expect to talk about everything in just one post.
If you have any suggestions about what I can add, any questions, or you want to guest post about this topic, do leave me a message.
The first thing to remember is that people on the Spectrum are like all of us in most respects.
We all need to eat, drink, shower, have meaningful activities and relationships. We all have needs, wants, preferences, favourite people and activities. We all have hormones – (((this is a whole other topic for another day, but an important one at that as it has been difficult to get people to understand that sexual needs are for everyone not just neurotypicals or those without disabilities of any kind. Why?)))
In spite of those similarities, there are some marked differences, one of them being social interaction and communication.
Their perception of the world is different to neurotypical ways of perceiving the world, and therefore the way they interact with the world is going to need to be different.
Let me get a bit philosophical, authors such as Locke, talk about realism and how our perceptions are only mental representations of the actual object we are observing.
In this way, every single one of us has a different mental representation of the same object, which might be slightly different but in the end we all know we are talking about the same object, right?
Sometimes those on the Spectrum might get confused – are we both talking about the same object? What is it about this conversation about this object that is confusing me? Am I missing something that is being communicated – sarcasm, facial expression, tone of voice?
This might lead to what we often call “challenging behaviours”.
I would rather call them communications and coping mechanisms to what turns out to be a difficult situation for the person.
Trying to figure out whether someone is using sarcasm, making a particular facial expression to match their verbal communication, or saying something in a particular tone can be exhausting.
Many people with Aspergers will have set rules that they’ve figured out through the years, to identify what is going on in a social interaction: “when someone crosses their arms it means that they are angry with me”, for example.
This could be true in most occasions, but what happens when the assumption is wrong and the person is just holding their arms together because they are cold?
I am finding it important in my sessions to normalise what is Aspergers/Autism behaviour and what is “being human” behaviour.
Normalising and giving alternatives like the one above to different situations, without shaking up their well-designed system of interactions, helps develop new skills and add to already existing ones.
What is OK to do in a social interaction and what is not, is a very subjective thing indeed. And therein lies the difficulty.
This includes being able to ask questions about particular behaviours someone might be unsure of – “I see you’ve crossed your arms, are you ok?”
There might need to be some practising to get there, and some energy investment in this, but it might help with their future interactions in similar situations.
Someone on the Spectrum might expect a conversation to go one way, but being unable to control what the other person is saying might mean they are surprised by the response and might need to invest some time and energy in figuring out what they mean – facial expression, tone, sarcasm or not – and what the best response is in this case.
Providing a space to develop communication skills and question the need for them is important. Acquiring new skills through therapy or coaching might help gain better understanding of why we do what we do, why do we respond like we respond, and why we hide when we hide – this applies to both neurotypicals and people on the spectrum.
With my less-verbal or fully non-verbal clients, I find it important to really “listen” to the body language.
Being attuned to the subtle communications is vital and it improves my relationship with the person, and in turn allows them to access more of what they need and find fulfilling activities and interactions.
They might realise they can trust me more because I am watching closely and responding to their cues.
I can then verbally express what I think they want, and keep showing different objects, activities, pictures or symbols until we definitely get to what the person really is communicating they want.
Sometimes I will get it wrong, and I will apologise for doing so, or for taking too long to get it.
This also happens in neurotypical to neurotypical interactions, but it’s enhanced by the lack of verbal input and other ways of communication used by the individual.
A quick eye gaze towards a favourite object, a particular sound in response to me asking whether they want a drink (or something else), is so important. It is how they get their needs met.
(Verbal) Neurotypicals might just need to say, “can you pass me that drink please” and that’s it. Quick and simple. We get our drink!
But getting that drink when you are non-verbal, maybe have limited ways to communicate, interact and move, amongst other things that might need to be taken into account here, might take a bit longer…
There’s a lot of food for thought here…So I am going to leave it there for this week.
Next week I want to talk about theory of mind and intense world theory, which helps understand even more the social struggles someone on the Spectrum might experience.
I hope this has been helpful. If you find anything that might need rephrasing, rewording or amending altogether, do let me know.
Would you like to add anything? Send me a message and let me know.