This post is to help answer a question I received on Facebook. She asked where to find good groups for people with Asperger Syndrome. I thought about what advice to give.
I will say, there are some BAD social skill group leaders out there. I’ve read some of the complaints. To say they’re ALL bad though would be a “Hasty Generalization” logical fallacy. If it wasn’t for the social skills I’ve learned throughout my 3 years of intentionally improving my social life, I wouldn’t be writing this blog or start my YouTube channel. I see social skills as a tool that led to much of my freedom to express myself, and for the confidence I’ve gained. I think the key here is how they’re taught.
I will share what I believe to be bad signs of a social skills leader, and the good signs. I will say though, I have never been to a social skills group. I have never experienced what any of them are like for myself. The bad signs is based off my observations. The good signs are based on what has helped me personally as a social skills learner.
Here are some signs I’ve noticed that are common in bad social skill leaders:
#1 – Some Neurotypical people have good intentions, but don’t have a clear understanding of social skills themselves (this goes for NTs with wrong intentions, too).
I think it’s good to give NT leaders benefit of the doubt. Some of them are bad teachers, but do it with the right intentions. They do it because they want to help, but don’t actually know how to help. I feel bad for leaders that are demonized for their unhelpful approach to teaching social skills. I want to at least credit them for their good intentions, but the mistakes they make can definitely apply to people with the wrong intentions.
#2 – They may go off by their natural understanding, but not go much deeper by intentional understanding
NTs usually have the advantage of picking up on social cues than people who are autistic. They know those unwritten society norms that autistic people don’t pick up on naturally. However, NTs may lack deep understanding of how those society norms and cues work.
I’ve heard a person comment on Twitter say that they left their social group because the leaders could not explain the reasons behind the very things they would teach. If I remember correctly, the person said that they were told to NEVER criticize people. When she asked why, they told her “YOU JUST DON’T.” It’s like: “Wait? What about when someone is doing something wrong that can hurt other people? In some contexts, correction is on trivial things that don’t really matter, but what about on the things that do matter? What then?” I wonder if some leaders may not be able to explain any of their answers to those questions because they may be going off of feelings. After all, being corrected doesn’t usually feel good. Sometimes it’s rude, but what makes it rude? These are the kind of things you gotta think about.
Solid advice often requires research. Our natural instincts don’t always explain why you have that gut feeling. When you’re not intentional about the “why,” explaining the “what” won’t do any favors for autistic people. They may even do the “what” in all the wrong ways.
Here’s an example of that. One time when I was 6, I hit a dog with a bat because I was scared it would bite me. I saw it as “protecting myself.” When my mom found out, she gave me a spanking. However, I remember being so confused as to why she did that. She didn’t explain why it was wrong, she just punished me. Now that I’m older, I realized that it was obvious to her that you don’t hurt an animal when it doesn’t hurt you, but that wasn’t obvious to me. Because it was obvious to her, she felt like I should’ve known better, but I didn’t. This is an example of how an autistic person can misinterpret words of an NT without clarification. Now, the “what” in this situation was that “you should protect yourself from danger.” But I didn’t understand what constituted as protecting yourself. My actions were based on fear. Just because something is obvious to you, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone. I now know that the “why” behind not hurting a dog is because you shouldn’t hurt an animal if has not proven to be an actual threat. Obvious to most people, but it wasn’t to me.
By the way, I felt like crying as I wrote that paragraph. I feel horrible for beating an innocent animal, and I remembered the feelings of being confused. It’s a heart wrenching feeling and embarrassing to admit, even though I was young. I want to clarify that not all Autistic people would ever do this. I can’t even imagine as it being common! To NTs out there, don’t generalize this as something every Autistic would do to an animal.
#3 – Some leaders are legalistic, and don’t actually care about the person.
Just like in a church, people can become so focused on rules that they don’t focus on ultimately loving the person. This is a HUGE problem. The whole point of teaching social skills is to improve the life of an autistic individual! When you actually focus on caring about the person through actions, good social advice will be a byproduct. Legalism is defined as “excessive adherence to law or formula.” What tends to happen to strict adherence is that life is “behavior focused”, not “person focused.” A person’s wellbeing is much more than the way they act, even though how they behave affects their quality of life, but to a certain extent. I believe the way a person thinks is more important than their outward actions. A person can act a certain way that looks good on the surface, but inside they may be suffering.
I used to be a legalistic person. I remember being so focused on how people acted that I didn’t think as much on their peace of mind. Strict obedience to social “laws” can cause much so much emotional distress because of fear of messing up. It’s no longer about the person, but how they act no matter what’s going on in their lives. We must make allowances for each other’s mistakes. Love overlooks wrongdoings. When loving others is the focus, good behavior often follows.
#4 – Watch out for leaders that are hypocrites
This is one of my BIGGEST peeves with people who “educate” others on how they should behave. Isn’t it frustrating when ANYONE goes against what they tell you is right?
I remember using the hashtag #Abledsareweird on Twitter. For those who don’t know what this hashtag is used for, it’s meant for people who are disabled to share a time when non-disabled people tell them something stupid, mean, hypocritical, or even a failed attempt to “educate” them on their disability that they themselves don’t have. In the Tweet I made, I said, “How come NTs get so mad when an #ActuallyAutistic person violates their personal space, and yet, them giving us an unwanted hug is perfectly okay? #Abledsareweird”. That tweet got 151 likes and 35 retweets! It boggles my mind that the same people would also criticize me getting in their personal space, when they act like my discomfort from touch is something I need to get over!
Here’s something Jesus told someone in the Bible that relates to this point: “’Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
#5 – They are leaders just to feel like good people
Here’s another verse that comes to mind when it comes to this fifth point: “‘When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them.” (Matthew 6:5 NLTa) I’m sure you know someone in your who flaunts. They make themselves out to be these righteous people, but only do it in front of others. Their real motive is to impress people.
These people half-heartedly reach out to Autistic people. They don’t go the extra mile. They don’t invest their time and effort to understanding when they don’t immediately understand an autistic person. Most autistic people catch this, and it makes them angry. They’re used to be being treated like the outcast, and it’s offensive when the very people claiming to help them make their lives worse.
#6 – They lack patience
Patience is KEY when helping an Autistic person out. They already develop at a slower pace than their peers (not in everything, but usually a couple of things at least). They may need more time to figure things out. When someone lack patience, they show irritation, which is never helpful. It may even make the person feel like they’re not getting better fast enough, as if their progress doesn’t mean anything. Be patient with us.
Now there’s probably some bad signs that I missed, but I did my best to cover the major ones. Now, here are some signs of a GOOD social skills leader:
#1 – They actually care about your happiness, not your outward success
Good social skill leaders will care about your wellbeing, not if you appear “normal” on the surface. If you are autistic and lack joy because of the things people are teaching you, a bad social skills leader may dismiss the feeling, concluding that you feel that way because of ASD or something is wrong with you. They wouldn’t even consider that their teaching style may not be effective towards the individual, or that what they say is wrong. A good social skills leader will listen to why the Autistic person lacks joy. They will base their solutions to their problems with their feelings in mind. They might listen to NTs’ ideas on how to fix the issue, but they will never dismiss the autistic person’s feelings. They will also be careful on who they listen to, filtering out the unhelpful people. They will be willing to admit if they’re wrong in their teaching approach, and dig deeper into how their teaching can be effective and beneficial instead.
To them, real success is their self-esteem, confidence, meaningful friendships, which is all about how they feel. The underlying success is not for them to get a job, have friends, or live on their own. That’s outward success. Many “normal” people have all those things, but still have low self-esteem, have low confidence, and lack meaningful friendships. Now, it’s FANTASTIC when an autistic person achieves those things, but it must come from feelings of being loved, valued, and moved to love and value others. I have had 3 jobs, have great friends, and I’m moving into my own apartment next month, but I don’t think I could ever have those things without feelings of validation that come from effective teaching. It’s my internal life being nurtured that led to me having this outward success, and that’s what good leaders focus on ultimately.
#2 – They take the time to LISTEN to you
In order to reach out to Autistic people, you MUST listen to them. It is KEY. When you don’t listen to them, you will be blind to what their needs are. You can listen to NT advocates, doctors, and parents all day long, but people with ASD have a unique way of explaining their needs because they actually HAVE it. They may not always be right, but they at least can say what it’s like to be Autistic. Learning their experiences will help you understand their needs in a deeper way. And guess what? They often KNOW what they’re talking about when it comes to this. Someone who is a parent know more what it’s like to be one than people who aren’t, even if they don’t have all the answers. Same goes for people with ASD.
Here’s Bible advice that I think goes great with this second point: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” James 1:19.
#3 – They present both the “What” & the “WHY”
People who are able to explain why something is the way it is have a much better understanding than people who only know the what. For example, a person says the sky is blue. Someone asks why. If the person can’t explain why, then they’re probably not qualified to work at NASA. Someone who answers that questions with: “Blue light is scattered in all directions by the tiny molecules of air in Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. This is why we see a blue sky most of the time.” is someone who definitely knows their stuff. By the way, this is quoted word for word from this website by NASA, so I definitely didn’t know this off the top of my head: https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/blue-sky/en/
#4 – They clarify that social skills are “guidelines”, not “rules”
I believe absolutes exist, but social skills is a tricky area that’s definitely not always black and white. For example, lots of people enjoy sarcasm, but delivery must done just right. It can be funny, mean, fall flat, or taken seriously depending on delivery, which is hard for some people, including many Aspies like me. To almost every rule there is an exception. Social skills may not be the same in every culture. Making eye contact with the occasional looking away is okay in America, but doing that in China may be rude.
I think the key is moral standards first, learning the unwritten rules second, and expression last. When you have moral standards, there is integrity in every interaction you make and lines you won’t cross. When you know the unwritten social expectations, you know how the NT thinks and can adjust your communication in a way they appreciate (more easily anyway). Expression is where you can have “fun” in the conversation, like sharing your interests, coming up with a joke, or using certain words depending on context. Your moral standards will always be absolute, social expectations are your guidelines, and expression is the communication part.
#5 – They take an interest in you, not ignore you
Good leaders are interested take an interest in YOU. “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” Philippians 2:4
#6 – They talk to you in a way according to your needs
Not every person on the spectrum have the same needs. That is in fact why they even call it a spectrum. Some people may need more help than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. After all, a need is a need. It’s not gonna feel easy. Good leaders will be mindful of what you need. Some people need “tough love”; others need to be spoken to gently and kindly. Some people may need to be corrected; others need to be complimented. Everyone is different. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29 NIV
#7 – They don’t criticize you in front of others
I hear way too often about Aspies being criticized in front of others. That can be MORTIFYING. It can be so damaging to point out faults in the presence of others. If you’re in a position of authority, correcting an Aspie you have authority over can definitely be necessary, of course. However, doing it privately must always be the first resort, and in a loving way. Matthew 18:15-17 offers great advice on what to do when someone makes a social offense, and it mentions private criticism being the first resort. I always appreciate when people point out things I’m doing wrong when it’s done privately, particularly when it’s people whose opinions I respect and know are doing it with the right heart. Sometimes it’s not your place to say something, but when it is, be gracious. The only exception that comes to my mind right now is an art critique in the context of a classroom or a show.
#8 – Love is their goal, not “fixing” you
I have LITERALLY heard people say that they will “fix” somebody else. I remember hearing someone say out loud at an airport, “I will FIX her!” He said it in an angry way and I hope he doesn’t mean it in the way I think it means. That is one of the most dehumanizing ways I’ve ever heard someone refer to a person. They are not a toy that can be fixed with glue, or whatever fixing analogy you wanna use. It’s never that simple. Even if they don’t say it, some people actually do think this way. They try so hard to “fix” people, even when it’s not their responsibility and they can’t control the other person. What people need to do instead is to love the other person, and good leaders know this. They rely on loving action and words to help people, not use harsh actions or words to “help” them.
#9 – They see you as a person, so they don’t “need” to remind themselves that you’re human
My last point will be this one. @brookewinters33 on Twitter made this tweet on June 3rd, 2019: “Many disabled people are dependent on others to meet our basic care needs and too often we literally have to put our lives in the hands of people who admit that they often forget we are people.” Good leaders don’t forget we are people. They reach out to us because we are. They don’t see us as objects, but as human beings like anyone else.
I hope all this advice will help you find the best people that can speak life into whatever situation you’re in. If you’re looking to join a group meant for Autistic people, look for these signs in the leaders. Remember that nobody is perfect and we’re always gonna learn new things about each other, good and bad. That’s why love must be our highest goal so we don’t lose sight of the mission to help one another out ❤