Autistic Survival Guide/Social Interaction Guidelines

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This chapter is an extension of the Conversation section of Marc's book. It is drawn in part from articles posted on, as well as from personal discussions between individuals. The (alpha) and (beta) tags next to each section's title indicate the state of development that they're in, given that it seems to me to be an extremely important part of the book.

Conversation[edit | edit source]

Defining conversation[edit | edit source]

There have been many, MANY books written about conversation, but most of them rely on knowing a few basic ideas. Wiktionary defines conversation as "expression and exchange of individual ideas through talking with other people". It is similar to speech and discourse in that ideas usually generate new ideas in other people. However, conversation is different from speech and discourse in that those new ideas can be communicated back immediately.

When people meet to hold a conversation, they usually want those ideas exchanged as fully as possible. When ideas are being exchanged as fully as possible, they usually also want those ideas exchanged as quickly as possible. When ideas aren't being exchanged properly, there are many potential remedies that basically involve the listener getting the speaker to repeat, restate, and/or give up communicating the idea.

Conversations between people[edit | edit source]

A conversation between people who want to meet each other for the first time on agreeable terms usually follows a particular protocol. The interaction takes the form of questions and statements designed to elicit responses from—but while not offending or embarrassing—the other person. Such a conversation usually starts with greetings and small talk, during which both parties thresh out each other's disposition regarding certain things such as:

  • How willing the person is to talk with the other;
  • What kind of threats the person could represent;
  • The person's place in any relevant pecking order;
  • What kind of mood the person is in;
  • What kind of person they are generally;
  • What the person's pet areas of interest might be;
  • How much of the information that was gleaned from any previous encounters still applies.

If someone asks how you are, they may not actually want to know the true or literal answer. This is called a phatic expression, and its purpose is to indicate a willingness to establish or continue a social relationship. A short answer is always best, and if you're trying to make a good impression, an answer that indicates a positive and confident mood such as "fine", "doing great", or just "good" is best. It may sometimes be acceptable or appropriate to give a short, one-sentence answer that communicates a "status report" for something you were talking to the person about before. In all cases, remember to follow up with a similar greeting if you haven't already.

If, on the other hand, you don't want to interact with people who introduce themselves to you, the most effective way to get rid of them is to AVOID using the most direct method, and to instead use the least offensive way of communicating that with them you can find. This way, you won't get a reputation for being brash and bad mannered. If this doesn't work, it's okay to use more direct methods, such as avoiding eye contact.

The key thing to look for in responses is whether the person has positive or negative reactions during introductions or when a subject has been brought up—reading responses incorrectly can lead to misjudging people, and responding inappropriately can lead to being misjudged. Failure to respond can lead to people being scared off. People with negative outlooks and body language are usually avoided, and may in fact be trying to be avoided. People with unconfident or inconsistent body language are also often avoided. The best way to deal with this by far is to just "be" the emotion you want to be.

Based on each person's responses and body language, the conversation then gravitates back and forth between areas of common interest and small talk. It is important for both to try to develop an understanding of what the other person is thinking and feeling while talking—this is rapport. In general, it is best to stay away from negative and contentious things unless the other person displays an interest in debating them constructively. Any time during the conversation, participants may switch to another topic, switch back to small talk, or use a distraction to pull out of the conversation. Note that it is acceptable to tell white lies to end a conversation when no other distractions are available, but avoid obvious lies.

It is much more important for the person starting the conversation to follow the protocols closely than for the other person to do so. It is also worth noting that autistic individuals often end up in passionate conflicts with each other caused by a failure to understand the other's disposition. In this context, small talk is actually quite a neat and useful trick.

Approaching people[edit | edit source]

Approaching others is probably the most difficult part of any successful conversation. If you have absolutely no ability to start conversations, it is a good idea to observe how others introduce themselves to you to get a feel for how it is done before embarking on the mission of learning this skill yourself. In fact, it's a good idea to have practised your other conversation skills first with people who introduce themselves to you. However, avoid trying to learn things from how other people greet (and interact with) each other unless you know about their relevant backgrounds and their relationship to each other. Friends greet each other in different ways from strangers, and greeting strangers like friends is quite a dangerous thing.

In order to better understand how people perceive you, pay particular attention to the subjects people raise when talking to you. They may have something to do with the current environment or situation, or perhaps they are trying to confirm things about the impression they have of you. If different people keep raising the same subjects, it may be due to your image or appearance. I realised once that people kept raising the subjects of consumerism, biking and heavy metal. And when I thought about it, it clicked that I am quite a big man, with a long beard and hair who wears a biker jacket and no jewellery. People were thinking I might be a biker or a hippy. I didn't like the biker image, so I stopped wearing the jacket. Also pay attention to the care with which people approach you.

It is quite important to be in a happy, comfortable, confident mood when meeting strangers. If you are going to go somewhere to meet strangers, try to prepare yourself beforehand by thinking about things that make you happy. It is also important to have practised voice tones prior to attempting a conversation—telling someone their fly is open at maximum volume is not a good idea.

Some conversation starters are also known as "icebreakers" or "openers", and they are specifically designed to build a conversation from scratch. The best icebreakers are "closed questions" about the situation or something good you notice about the person followed up by "open questions". In the end, don't feel bad if your efforts to start conversations fail. Most first-conversations between strangers don't turn into extended ones.

Questions[edit | edit source]

Questions are an integral part of social interaction, and they serve a variety of purposes. Questions are what enable autistic people to survive in this world, and knowing how to find the information you need while weeding out the unimportant stuff is likely to be one of your best survival skills. It is necessary to understand that you as an autistic person are very probably unique as a person; with your own goals, features, flaws, needs and perception(s) of life. You are probably the one who is most willing and able to find out what you need to know to achieve something. Use your own judgement here—this guide cannot tell you exactly what to ask, but asking questions from people you know and trust is probably a good start.

Types of questions[edit | edit source]

  • Personal: asking a person to reveal something about themselves, or their "subjective" opinion about something; no particular answer is correct, and not answering is also an option.
  • Leading: asking in such a way as to lead a person to answer a particular way; often, but not always, forms of manipulation.
  • Rhetorical: a question that is not supposed to be answered; often designed to get people to think about the answer rather than to respond directly.
  • Open: type used in conversation that allows the person being asked to talk for as much as they want for a reply.
  • Closed: type used in conversation and that requires short clarifying answers; often a good "listening tool".
  • Queries: requests for objective or definitive information. Still, the answers you get may be neither objective nor definitive. The best way to deal with this is to query again for more specific answers. This method is not unlike dealing with Google.

Getting useful information from people[edit | edit source]

  • If the person you're seeking information from has bad experiences answering your questions then they may avoid doing so.
  • If the person you ask questions of sees that you don't take answers to heart, they may put less effort into their answers.
  • Questions usually have assumptions, and if they don't, then they often SEEM to have assumptions.
    • These assumptions are statements that can often be more offensive than when they are stated outright.
    • Example of a question with an assumption: "Why is X stupid?" assumes that X is stupid and rules out an answer that may explain X.
    • Example of a question that seems to have one: "How do you talk to people?" is too broad a question, probably leading to the assumption that it's a personal question. That is, "how do YOU talk to people?"
  • The best questions are almost certainly the ones that assume nothing but that the answers to former questions are true.
  • Starting a "questioning session" with the assumption that the former rule is correct leaves us no option but to ask a question with no assumptions.
    • Examples of such a question: "Is it fair to say that ... (any given statement)?"
  • NEVER ask a question that you aren't prepared for an honest answer to, and if you aren't prepared for the answer you get, never over-react.
  • Bear in mind that "knowledge is power" and asking certain questions MAY reveal gaps in your understanding that other people MAY be able to exploit.
  • I find it's usually easier to find the information I seek by staying focused on acquiring it in a form I understand. This is an art in itself.
  • It is usually OK to ask a few questions you already know the answer to test the person's answering abilities, so long as you don't ask them for the purpose of "showing them up".

Debate[edit | edit source]

Questions are so powerful that people have had to come up with some ingenious defenses against them. These defenses involve never answering the questions properly, or otherwise dissuading people from asking or pursuing them. Examples of defensive responses to questioning include the following:

  • "I am asking the questions here [not you]."

"Debate framing" is a particularly nasty form of manipulation described in the book Don't Think of an Elephant. The idea is to change the context of a debate so as to make it favourable to one side. Some examples of this follow:

  • Framing the attacks of September 11, 2001 as an act of war rather than a crime; in this context, justice, rule of law, and due process did not apply as they would if it were simply a crime, thereby giving the Bush administration an excuse to launch wars on those they wanted to.
  • Defining the measure of a person's worth as how well they obey orders in school and in the workplace, despite any other qualities they may have.

Rapport and friendship[edit | edit source]

  • Rapport is NOT something you have when you "get" someone or consistently understand their behaviour, or when you think the other person gets you, but when the other person also shares the same feeling. Your mirror neurons are capable of misguiding you.
  • Friends share rapport, but rapport is not about friendship.
  • One definition of Rapport is "a feeling of mutual understanding or trust and agreement between people".
  • Rapport may be when both people "get" each other or share a sense of "connection".
  • Rapport between two people develops over time as they gradually learn more about each other and develop trust and appreciation for each other's worth. This is particularly true for friendship.
  • THEORY: Mirror Neurons WORK in autistic spectrum people the same way they do in non-autistic people, but the psychological effects are quite different due to the NUMBER of people those mirror neurons work for. It is possible that they work just like a neurotypical person's does, but only when dealing with Autistic spectrum people (and then only when the two people are thinking the same). Because AS people usually lack the ability to unconsciously conform, their thinking is much less likely to be the same as someone they're talking to.

Reciprocal disclosure[edit | edit source]

During a conversation, people will often take turns trading personal information in the hopes of learning more about each other and developing some rapport. One person may elicit information from another either by asking direct questions or by disclosing personal information in the hopes of getting the other person to disclose similar information. The latter case is often used when a question may be considered too personal to ask directly. Disclosing something else or changing the subject is quite acceptable.

It's important to know how much information to share. Disclosing too little information make you seem withdrawn, unwilling to talk, or simply unwilling to disclose a particular piece of information. On the other hand, disclosing too much information may cause others to perceive you as:

  • Too trusting, and perhaps even a potential victim;
  • Untrustworthy, and unable keep secrets well (particularly if you disclose information about other people);
  • Dangerous or ditsy, depending on the nature or relevance of the information disclosed (particularly if other relevant pieces of information haven't already been disclosed);
  • Aloof, distracted, or detached from the flow of the conversation;
  • Needy, clingy, or childish.

People will have expectations about how far they want to take any relationship that develops, and also how quickly. Those expectations will change as the conversation develops, and it is a bad idea to try to push this process further than the other person wants to take it. There are very good reasons for everyone to be careful about how deep they go into any given relationship. The deeper they go, the more compatible they need to be for the relationship to remain positive, and the harder it can be emotionally to remain in, or end, a negative relationship; therefore the more they need to be sure of being compatible. In fact, an ability to know when to stop going deeper is probably one of the best survival techniques.

Understanding reciprocal disclosure can greatly enhance your social capacity, and the mystique created by knowing and obeying these rules can boost your charisma.

A 'Persona' is Socially Savvy[edit | edit source]

A persona is a social mask. You create it out of your strengths and wear it in public. When you 'get to know' a stranger, what you reveal sends a message. If you want to pursue a friendship, the conversation move toward what you have in common. If you dislike them you do not discuss commonalities with them. This allows two people to avoid humiliation from social rejection. there was no rejection. just a lack of common interests. Do not create a complex or fraudulent persona. You want to be consistent and comfortable in different situations. Your social mask will be awkward initially. Pay attention to the way people react to you. When you become familiar with your persona, you'll relax into the role. The top 'likeable' characteristics are cheer, calm, competence, cooperation and confidence. People do not want smart friends. They want kind and mellow friends.

Words are huge and concrete to me. Words are neither huge nor concrete in actuality. People use words as tools to accomplish a task. They tell outrageous stories for entertainment. The meaning is clear in the eyes of the speaker. The meaning cannot be found in the words. Most people do not think an untrue statement is a lie. They have a point. Fairy Tales are all lies in a story of profound truth. Society is a big picture. you lose friends by focusing on details. Make friends with an entire person. The good and the bad exist in everyone.

Small talk is unimportant. You need a response when someone asks you about yourself. Come up with a three sentence description that makes you sound superb. Be truthful and promote yourself shamelessly. Your interest is not acceptable to discuss in a social situation. Keep behind your persona around strangers. Talk about pastries and the weather while making eye contact. The eyes will let you know if someone can be trusted. Sometimes they are honest, but not often. This does not means they are bad or untrustworthy. They don't care about the words.

People are all different. People who like each other become more and more alike by spending time together. Don't rush or push people. We are very intense. This scares people. Be very gentle and calm and your focus will be welcome instead of intrusive. Practice, practice, practice.

Visualising social interaction[edit | edit source]

It would be silly to say that any one way to visualise social interaction can be 100% effective or appropriate at all times. In fact, non-autistic people seem to approximate everything at best. It is worth noting, though, that visual thinking is an autistic strong point, and it is very likely that a visualised understanding of social interaction is going to be the most effective.

  • Marc Segar talks about "plot" and "detail" in his book, but leaves it to the imagination as to what the exact differences are. One can only speculate, but my understanding is this:
    • "Plot" is exactly like the plot in a movie or TV show. The sequence of events is more important than the exact details about the events themselves.
    • The information gleaned from observing the events and their sequence goes towards building a picture of the situation an observer is currently in. This is "situational awareness".
    • This situational awareness is related to self interest in the non-autistic mind and provides the observer with information about threats and opportunities in the social environment.
    • Also, the information gleaned from observing what other people do goes towards building a picture of "who they are". This may be what Marc Segar was talking about when he talks about "slates" and keeping them clean.
    • This picture of "plot" vs "detail" is incomplete if one does not understand the forces driving non-autistic people, but this is beyond the scope of "plot".
  • There is another possible way to think about plot vs detail:
    • People who are not experts at something need to consciously think about doing it until they become experts. This is a rather "static" way of thinking.
    • People who are experts at something know their field so well that they base their real time actions on their detailed understanding rather than conscious thought. This is a much more "dynamic" way of thinking.
    • conscious thought tends to get in the way of doing something efficiently even for experts, however using conscious thought is usually necessary when fixing mistakes.
    • It may be the case that non-autistic peoples fluid behaviour in social situations is based on this kind of expert understanding, however the fact that they have no conscious technical understanding of what they're doing DOES lead them to make mistakes that are difficult to fix.
    • If this particular interpretation of "plot vs detail" is correct, it is incomplete without knowing what non-autistic people are experts at.
    • If this particular interpretation of "plot vs detail" is correct then autistic spectrum people prefer to keep learning rather than actually being experts on anything.
  • The single best way I have found to keep a grip of what's going on is by applying the second commandment, "You Must Love Your Neighbour As Yourself".
    • One translation of this rule reads "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You".
    • Another plausible translation could read "Don't Do Unto Others As You Would Not Have Others Do Unto You".
    • The pagan tenet "anything which causes no harm is probably OK" seems to approximate this rule, as does Plato's conclusions about justice in Platos Republica.
    • Most people seem to try to follow this rule even when they don't know about it, and those that aren't, try to appear as if they are.
    • Nobody ever succeeds in following it 100%, however, honest people will usually try to fix their mistakes when they realise them, and they usually try to do so according to this rule.
    • By working out all of the things a person is doing to other people that they would accept other people doing to them, it is possible to "zone in" on acceptable behaviour.
    • By working out all of the things a person is doing to other people that they would not have the other person do to them, it is possible to work out whether someone is being malicious or not, and even the nature of that malice.
    • In the case of conflict, it is often possible to perform this "calculation" for every deed involved and come up with extremely equitable resolutions based on the things that people should be doing, before other people even realise there's a problem.
    • It is often possible to figure out if someone is trying to deceive or manipulate you by working out whether the person is willing to do themselves what they are trying to convince you to do. Asking detailed questions can reveal the deceit.
    • People who clearly have no interest in following this rule are usually well worth avoiding.
  • The second commandment is not a bad rule to live by either, but it doesn't work perfectly if you don't know what's important to other people.
    • Even so, if you wish to question or challenge people on the basis that they have broken this rule, then you pretty much need to be obeying it yourself. Otherwise you can be seen as a hypocrite.
    • It is fair to say that everybody has their own personal preferences about how they like to be treated, and it would therefore be breaking the rule to not treat other people according to those preferences once you learn about them.
    • On the other hand, using your own preferences when you don't know the other persons, as the rule would at first suggest can be a good starting point for people you don't know. Beware though that you may not know whether you like to be treated a particular way by strangers until you experience it.
    • It is possible to take this rule way too far and end up never doing anything for yourself the way Jesus or Socrates might.
  • Many of the laws of physics seem to apply in the average social interaction:
    • For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. EVERYTHING that happens has meaning.
  • Plot vs Detail may also refer to a scale, as in Tactical vs Strategic. Plot may refer to the general overall thing (like a Strategy in a war) and Detail would be the close-up pieces (like Tactics in warfare/battles)