Communication difficulties is possibly the most well known struggle that those on the autism spectrum face.
The aim of communication is to exchange information and ideas with others. It is an essential skill to have in life, whether we are simply communicating that we are say hungry or tired or engaging in more complex communications of a business negotiation or scientific research paper it is clear that communication skills are really quite important to all of us.
So what is it that makes communication hard for us aspies?
The trouble with communication is the way we are dealing with multiple streams of information at once and my brain struggles to interpret this.
Just think about the word ‘yes.’ It’s meaning is clear isn’t it? Well not quite. If it is said with a nod of the head it could mean that it’s a positive response. If the tone of voice raises at the end it could be a question (yes?). If you’ve just approached someone and they say ‘yes’ they are really saying ‘what do you want?’…..
The list goes on and it’s clear that even simple words change meaning depending on the context and tone they are spoken in. The same is true for text. If I SUDDENLY WRITE IN CAPITOLS you might think I’m being angry and shouting, or perhaps I’m just highlighting an important sentence for you to remember.
Most people simultaneously take in and understand these multiple messages and unspoken clues with little effort and can then respond the most appropriate way. For us aspies it’s often not the case and instead we need to consciously learn to read and understand the messages being given. In a way it is just like learning a foreign language. This is an analogy that has helped me greatly when I’ve found myself frustrated by communication difficulties. As a handy twist of fate, a fairly common aspie trait is a strong ability to learn and absorb information so learning to communicate fluently with the ‘native neurotypicals’ can be both fun and achievable, so long have patience and persistence. So where do we start?
I’ve listed a few pointers that have helped me along the way and I hope they help you too. At the end of this post I will use some example situations to get you started but intend to go deeper in further posts.
These are tips have worked for me in the past, but we all learn in different ways so please have fun adapting this to suit you and please feel free to add any tips you have found helpful to the comments section.
1: Who do you want to communicate with?
In the above examples I showed how communication varies greatly depending on the situation.
Before even starting to work out how and what to communicate we need to think about who you want to communicate with. Perhaps you want to be better at communicating with friends, or colleagues at work, or emails, or phone calls, the choice is yours.
2: Identify the Challenges
Now you have decided which style of communication you want to improve I’m going to ask you to do something important, but uncomfortable.
Make a list (either on paper on in your head) of what you find difficult about this. Be as critical and brutal as you like.
It feels very un-natural to be critical and negative when trying to learn something but actually I find this a helpful exercise. Usually we are encouraged to ‘think positively’ but actually for this process we need to be able to separate what we can already do and what we struggle with.
So perhaps you’re now sat looking at a list and feeling a bit defeated. Actually what you are looking at is a list of things we are going to learn how to conquer. We have identified our enemy and it’s time fight these challenges.
3: Set some Goals
Looking at our list of challenges we might start to feel overwhelmed, where do you even start?
What we want to do here is start to break down these issues even further and form a set of goals that are manageable.
Perhaps we have said that we find making friends hard because you don’t understand people. It would be a huge task to tell ourselves that we are going to suddenly have friends overnight, but perhaps we can break this down into smaller chunks. What do you need to learn here? Perhaps learning to better understand body language might help? Or learning some conversation starters? Building some self confidence to meet people? – these can all be made into smaller, more manageable goals. Instead of setting myself a challenge of being perfect at communicating with friends, I could say ‘this month I will try and learn how to start a conversation’ – this is achievable and a step towards my final goal.
What skills do you think might help you to achieve your goal and what skills do others seem to ‘just have’?
4: Learn – Study & Research
Now we know what it is we want to know how to do, how so we gain the skills to be able to do it? It’s time to get our academic heads on here and start to study.
What we are doing here is asking all the questions you were probably afraid to ask, but there’s no silly questions here and we have a great tool at our hands to help us along…. The internet.
The internet allows us access to vast amounts of information and it’s time to tap into this. What we are looking for is information and advice on the topic we are looking for. It is helpful for me to ask the question ‘how do you ...... ?’ as if I am looking to see what exactly it is the other person, this gives me clues as to what I can start to practice.
Perhaps you want to learn how to improve eye contact – ask the internet ‘how do you improve eye contact?’
Perhaps you want to know how to invite a new friend over - ask the internet ‘how do you invite a new friend over?’
Perhaps you want to improve your writing skills - ask the internet ‘how do you improve your writing skills?’
Can you see the theme developing here?
As we search we will come up against lots of information, so how do we know what is relevant? For this we have to give ourselves a filter. Do I find what I’m reading helpful? If yes, then I can consider it and move on – if not, scrap it and move on.
Having trusted people (perhaps a care worker, family member, support group or friend) to chat through ideas with is a great help too.
Some useful websites I’ve found are http://www.helpguide.org/, http://psychcentral.com/ and http://www.wikihow.com, but you can also have a look for ideas on YouTube and Google. Always remember though that you will simply be reading other peoples ideas, so if you do not agree with what you read or you try something out and it doesn’t work for you then simply leave it. If in doubt ask a trusted person for their advice.
5: PRACTICE! - Step out of your comfort zone
So by now we are brimming with knowledge about your new skill. Perhaps you now know the correct way to use newly learned phrase or can recite the rules on small talk etiquette, but you still come across as robotic or fake. This is because we need real practice with real people. This takes courage and persistence but is what moves us from knowing how to communicate to actually communicating naturally and comfortably.
Look for as many chances to practice what you learned in step 4 as possible – and don’t be afraid to get it wrong!
I’ve often found that I get great practice by going and staying at a youth hostel or joining a tour, even if it’s in my local city. A day spent with tourists has two advantages – As I’m around people from different areas a lot of my differences are immediately seen as being because I’m assumed to be from elsewhere and I start with a clean slate. I am also able to make as many embarrassing mistakes as I like fairly consequence free – I’ll never see them again!
The tricky part is that there is still some embarrassment and it’s still often a long and frustrating process but one that opens your horizons and has real results. The adventures you take add to the experiences you can then chat about in future. Volunteering in a charity shop gave me practice in speaking to the public AND a good story to share at a job interview. A weekend in a youth hostel in San Francisco put in the deep end learning to socialise in a Night Club, Coffee Shops and taught me to make small talk AND provided great storied to share with people when I get back.
Just by focusing on a small element of the overall issue we identified in part 1 we are building our confidence and having an adventure along the way.
6: Enjoy yourself
As you start to build your confidence then it is great to look back to what you want to try and improve next. We never stop learning and developing our skills and as you conquer your fears you can have a great time learning the skills you want to be able to communicate well.
I hope you have enjoyed this post and found it of help. I really look forward to hearing about the adventures you have as you learn new ways to communicate. Please feel free to share this post and leave comments.
I will be covering this topic in far more detail in future blogs so please feel free to let me know of any tips you would like to share or any topics you would like to read more about.