My brother Alex describes autism to me this way: “Imagine you’re blind, deaf, and you have no sense of touch, and you’re standing in a field, and someone is throwing footballs to you. You don’t know that you’re not catching the football. Then if people try to point out that you’re not good at football, you don’t understand, because you have no ability to tell.” For him, and many like him, navigating social interactions feels like trying to understand a secret language, a code that they don’t have the key to. They might never find the key or speak the secret language fluently, but more and more autistic people are finding ways to break that code.
Alex, for example, joined an organization called the Autism Self Advocacy Network, a group dedicated to helping autistic people speak for themselves in negotiations. There, he worked on a book written entirely by autistic people, for autistic people, about navigating college. Going to college is hard for nearly everybody. But for students with autism, it can be more than just learning to do laundry or getting the phone number of that cute boy or girl in your chemistry class. One chapter in the book, by Samantha April Davis, encourages students to try to talk to their professors face-to-face to make a more personal impression on them. If a student is uncomfortable in that situation and “must communicate via written communication, hand deliver a note in an envelope from your hand to the professor’s hand. An unusual envelope, such as one with graphics, one with an unusual color, or one with a wax seal will stand out and will prime their memory as to who gave them the letter when they go to open it,” writes Davis.
Psychology researchers and therapists have also developed a wide array of tools to try and learn social cues that come more naturally to the neurotypical (people without psychological disorders). Earlier this year, researchers at Michigan State University reported success in using videos to teach social skills to teens on the spectrum. After watching videos showing situations like people helping clean up a mess, students were able to later repeat those kinds of social interactions in their lives. Here, for example, is a video of kids taking turns with a toy:
Similarly, cartoons and comics created for autistic people can help give people context for social situations. The show The Transporters features several animated characters interacting with one another. By pairing real faces and expressions with situations in the show, the producers hoped their viewers would be able to do the same.
Understanding facial expressions is one of the more common codes that some people with autism have trouble with. There are even “face cards” that people can download to practice recognizing emotions like sadness or confusion. Newer versions actually integrate these face-practicing exercises with Google Glass, to give people an added layer of information during social interactions.
Another strategy uses “social stories” to help autistic people understand everyday interactions. These stories craft a narrative for a child about a challenging interaction that parents and teachers want to address. The stories generally describe where and when the challenge takes place, the reactions and feelings of the people around the student, and what the student can do in the future. Say, for example, that a student tends to sit too close to the other kids in his class. Here’s an example, from My Aspergers Child, of a social story that parents might use to address the behavior:
Sometimes I talk to the other children in my class. The other children don’t like when I stand very close to them. When I stand too closely, it makes my friends feel crowded. If I stand too close, other children sometimes get mad at me. I can back up and stand three feet away from my friends when we talk. It makes my friends happy when I stand three feet away when we talk.
Or, for another example, a child might have a nervous habit of picking their fingers. Their social story would go like this:
Sometimes I feel like picking my fingers. Picking my fingers is not a good choice. Picking my fingers hurts and is not okay. I will try not to pick my fingers. I will keep my band-aid on my fingers. I will try to hold my pencil and do my work. I will hold a fidget toy. This is a good choice.
In many ways, these sorts of social primers are what my brother and his co-authors were working through by sharing stories of what went wrong in college and how to get it right. These glimpses into the world of the other, the world where people seem to all understand the rules to the game, can help students feel a little bit less like they’re standing in a field being pelted with footballs.
But codes can go two ways. When we asked for insight from readers on how they might be breaking social codes, many of them said that it’s not just autistic people who have some code-breaking to do. While the emphasis is usually on teaching people on the spectrum how to understand neurotypical behavior, little is done to teach the reverse.
Karla Fisher, who runs a Facebook page for those on the autism spectrum, says that “there is no such thing as ‘cracking the code’ or even that we lack social abilities. All autistic people have good enough social abilities when they are otherwise in a supportive environment and feel safe.” All communication is a two-way process that requires putting yourself into the shoes of someone else. Many assume that people with autism struggle with that goal, but Fisher says that the neurotypical, ironically, haven’t done a great job of it either.
Emily Willingham, a science writer who covers autism extensively, agrees that the focus is far too often on training people with autism to learn neurotypical behavior rather than the other way around. She asked her Twitter followers how neurotypical people can be better at understanding the autistic code. “Be patient!” one woman responded. “Give enough time and space for communication to happen. Don’t jump in and talk over any pause. It’s not a race.” Another woman said, “Stop talking and start perceiving, for a start. Non-auties seem oblivious to me and more interested in ‘telling’ than asking.”
And it’s true—I asked my brother what autism was like, thinking I could help him better understand people like me. But perhaps it’s I who need to better understand people like him.
What about you—do you have any experiences or tricks to unravel the codes of social interaction from either end of the autism-neurotypical spectrum? We’re seeking your stories, insights, and thoughts to add to this discussion. Leave a comment below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be happy to publish or withhold any information provided, and will not reveal your real name if you prefer.