How do I interact with an adult who may have Asperger's in a way that makes them feel comfortable?
June 29, 2012 11:29 AM   Subscribe

How do I interact with an adult brother of my girlfriend I am meeting for the first time... who may have Asperger's/autism spectrum...... in a way that makes them feel comfortable?

Meeting my girlfriend's adult brother for the first time at a family event. He has not been diagnosed with Asperger's or autism, but many in the family suspect so. Regardless of the diagnosis or lack of, the brother has been described to me by several family members as life-long poor social skills, will not look at you or carry on a conversation and/or prefers to be left alone. I'm very outgoing myself so I'm worried about "coming on too strong"/making him uncomfortable but I also don't want him to feel ignored or shunned by me if I don't chat him up like I usually do with other people... I would like to get to know him in a way that is comfortable for him but I don't know what kind of non-verbal feedback to look out for from him. Can you please give me some tips on how to best interact with him without pestering him? I know he loves computers and gaming, but I am not skilled in computers and the last game I played was tetris =). I'm thinking of reading a few articles in Popular Science or something computer tech orientated like that to try and think of a topic that's current that I could potentially ask him questions about.

What type of feedback could I look out for that would indicate perhaps I should leave him alone for the time being, AND what type of feedback could I look for that would indicate that it's okay to keep talking to him even if he might seem disinterested? **Please be kind in your comments, I'm not trying to diagnose him but the way he is described to me by family is such as I posted above. I'm just trying to figure out a way to get to know him at his own pace, but I am afraid of not knowing how to gauge whether I'm making him uncomfortable or not.... I'm afraid of just ignoring him completely because I think he is bothered but maybe I might mis-interpret his actions as disinterest but it's actually not and it's ok for me to continue?

I hope my question makes sense?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
People who have never met your girlfriend's brother just plain cannot answer this question, because every person on the spectrum is different. Seriously: very, very different. You really, really need to ask your girlfriend, who I am sure will be happy to tell you about her brother, his interests and his conversational style.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:33 AM on June 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

Take him as he comes. Talk to your girlfriend for cues and clues, and engage as much or as little as he seems to want to be engaged.

At family events, there's a lot of mixing and mingling to do. Don't worry too much about how much time you spend with this one or that one.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:37 AM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

If he sits beside you or otherwise appears to be looking at you from the corner of his eye, assume he is looking at you dead on. Some ASD people see better in their peripheral vision.

Be patient and give him a little time to adjust. Let him open up at his own pace.

If he drones on about a topic, try to let him finish his point.

Be fairly direct/blunt when speaking to him. They tend to be literal-minded and are often poor at making social inferences. Unlike most people, he won't feel that is rude and may very much appreciate that you aren't forcing him to try to guess.

You should probably not touch him. They usually have sensory issues. You should probably not be too loud. Sensitivity to noise is common. You might consider wearing dark, nonreflective clothing. Sensitivity to bright lights is also common.

Don't talk to him like he is retarded. His IQ may be higher than yours. Poor social skills is a separate issue from general intelligence.
posted by Michele in California at 11:42 AM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think you need to let go of what they told you about him. I would imagine the family mentioned the lack of eye contact and preference for not being bothered at as a a way of explaining to you that he may come off distant or rude. Just pretend her family said my brother is socially awkward and don't get all hung up in the how do I deal with this person who may have this disability thing.
posted by edbles at 11:44 AM on June 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's great that you are showing support for your girlfriend and her brother in trying to help him be comfortable.

DarlingBri is right that everyone on the spectrum is different, but given what you know about your sister's brother, I would suggest:

*Don't pressure him to look at you when he's speaking. There's a lot of research that shows that people on the spectrum have difficulty processing spoken words and the visuals of facial expressions at the same time. Some people look away from a speaker so that they can better process what they are saying.

*Given that he's an adult, he probably has an understanding and has learned about sarcasm from experience, but he might process it differently/slower than a "typical" person. If you say something sarcastic, he might think about it like, "That doesn't make sense. Oh wait, maybe he's doing that sarcasm thing. That would make sense. Make appropriate comment/laughter here." (Just an example! Not saying everyone does this.) So, be conscious about limiting sarcasm.

*Some people on the spectrum have a really big passion or two. If you can ask your sister if her brother has any big interests, it might be neat to talk about it with him after you introduce yourself and he gets more comfortable with you. If her brother has such a passion, his family members might already be sick of hearing about it, so he might really enjoy sharing his knowledge with you, a new fresh listener.

*Some people on the spectrum might talk in a monotone voice and/or not show much facial expression. If your girlfriend's brother does this, don't take it to mean that he isn't interested in talking with you.

*Give him space if he or you feels uncomfortable. If you're really outgoing and he's not feeling conversation/the crowd at the moment, that's cool. Don't take it personally.

I met my friend's brother who is quirky but also not diagnosed, and I just made an effort to converse with him and be friendly to him, even though his expression/tone of voice sometimes made it feel awkward. Afterward, my friend thanked me for making an effort and said that she really appreciated it, and that she knew he wasn't easy to talk to. Just allow him to be himself, be yourself, be kind, and if awkwardness happens, know that it's ok.
posted by shortyJBot at 11:46 AM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

You should ask your girlfriend about this.

Without ever having met the guy, but knowing a few people of whom this sort of thing is assumed, I will say this.

People just looooooovvvvve to play armchair psychologist, and autism spectrum disorders are very trendy right now. Chances are if the dude lives a functional, normal adult life and has not been diagnosed with anything, it's probably a nonissue and you should just treat him like anyone else.

If you do want to somehow defer to his preferred/optimal behavior, I'd say just tone your gregarious self down a notch. Let him open up to you. Be warm and open and friendly, but don't interrogate. Which I can tell that you do because you say in your question that you want to bone up on subjects you could ask him about! Maybe not a great idea.

Frankly, as a somewhat introverted person, I like it when I know that someone is into things I know nothing about, because it allows me to let them set the tone of the conversation. If you take this approach, you can leave it for him to either open way up or be more cool/closed off. Just pay attention to cues like this, and respond accordingly. If you ask, "So, you're a software developer? What does that mean, exactly?" and he says, "Oh, you know, codemonkey type stuff..." and stops there, he probably doesn't want to have a four hour conversation about the latest Popular Science cover story.
posted by Sara C. at 11:53 AM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

My brother is on the spectrum and seems to be very similar to your girlfriends brother. A lot of my past boyfriends have found it difficult to connect to him, but my husband got in and they're great together.

The best way to react is not to take his actions personally. If he doesn't look at you, seems stand off ish or ends conversations abruptly, that's not an attack on you.

Act like towards him like you would anyone else - just sit introduce yourself like anyone else and wait to see how he responds. Listen attentively if he does talk and if its a topic you don't know (my brother is a big gamer too, but lucky so is my husband) just ask questions. My brother loves talking about things that interest him.

I agree with the no touching thing. It might seem proper to offer a handshake or a pat on the shoulder, but follow his cues - there's nothing wrong with a friendly wave hello.

Also - don't be fake. Be yourself. Some people feel like autism/asperger's means your completely socially inept, but my brother can pin point a douchebag from a mile away. If his sister loves you, there's a good chance he'll think you're a great guy if you're just yourself.
posted by Danithegirl at 11:56 AM on June 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

DarlingBri is right on in saying that everyone on the spectrum is very much their own individual, so it's difficult to know exactly how to answer this question. The suggestions to take your time and to follow his lead are good, just as they would be for anyone on the spectrum or no. I think the fact that you are thinking of this and already wanting to approach him with kindness and respect speaks volumes and will go a long, long way.

You might also consider asking him for some feedback, framing it in your own head that being really extraverted can be "awkward" in certain situations. Something like "I tend to get really energized by meeting new people. If you find I'm coming on too strong, you need me to slow down or give you some space, just let me know."
posted by goggie at 11:56 AM on June 29, 2012

I would like to get to know him in a way that is comfortable for him but I don't know what kind of non-verbal feedback to look out for from him. Can you please give me some tips on how to best interact with him without pestering him? I know he loves computers and gaming, but I am not skilled in computers and the last game I played was tetris =). I'm thinking of reading a few articles in Popular Science or something computer tech orientated like that to try and think of a topic that's current that I could potentially ask him questions about.

I would suggest not going with the random tech/gaming icebreaker because most of the people with Asperger's I know have very strong opinions and specific interests within their broader interests. So they might hate Apple or Sony or something and you might be on the receiving end of a rant about a topic that you don't really know or care about. It could be like opening with a "I heard you like politics, so what do you think about Obama?" question to someone who goes to Tea Party rallies. Really that could apply to people who are really into any topic rather than just socially awkward people, but the end result will be more awkward with people who aren't good at smalltalk.

Also as an introvert myself I get annoyed by extroverts who don't know me at all trying to ask me questions that they don't actually care about the answers to for the sake of having a conversation with me. You're probably better off trying to find conversational topics naturally as they come up rather than manufacturing them in advance.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:02 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a person who hates smalltalk. My much-much-much preferred method of social interaction is to have someone talk about something interesting (something interesting to them) or tell a story to a group of people of whom I'm a member. I don't like being directly engaged (too much pressure!) but I'm happy to chime in with my own comments as the need/desire arises. When someone starts asking me questions (where do you work? what do you like to do for fun? where are you from?) to try to be friendly and chatty, all I'm thinking is SHUT UP SHUT UP PLEASE SHUT UP PLEASE STOP ASKING ME THINGS.

I would say just carry on and be your outgoing self near him. Don't do anything special to him, don't try to make him talk about things, just be your normal self and do your normal things. Let him talk to you. When you introduce yourself to him, try to have a few other people around. Say nice to meet you or whatever, and then just mingle with the other folks nearby.
posted by phunniemee at 12:10 PM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Some good advice has been offered.

1. Don't touch, or even invade personal space too much
2. Ask your girlfriend what he loves. Then at a quiet time (doesn't need to be first meeting) try engaging him in conversation about his favorite thing without asking too many questions.
3. Be literal, don't try making too many jokes that he won't understand due to sarcasm etc. because when others laugh he may view that as people laughing at his expense. BUT, (ask your girlfriend) if he likes normal jokes- ones that are not pop culture references, those could be a good way to break the ice.
4. Just don't take anything personally! If he won't talk to you or seems angry or says something hurtful, know that it is just the disorder and has nothing to do with you. Say "I'm sorry, I will leave you alone now. It was nice meeting you"
posted by biograd08 at 1:07 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

My brother is a highly functioning aspie. He, as many have pointed out, differ and this isn't a one size fits all. You kinda gotta feel people out a bit.

One thing about my brother is he has very narrow, very specific, and very passionate views and opinions on very obscure shit. Mostly he is into things like Dr. Who, fantasy novels, surprisingly redneck humor, and can quote movies from start to finish after one viewing practically. He is a pretty obsessive person.

Yet he is a ton of fun, even though he will say awkward things from time to time. In fact, knowing what is and what is not appropriate tends to escape him. One thing I've done when he gets a little out there is just to point out in a very noncondesending way later on why he probably shouldnt say what he did, or repeat something. He can be critical to criticism, so I try to do it in the most gently way (some people with aspie have had a tough time by both fellow peers and teachers over the years and it has really beaten down on their self esteem).

Another thing he tends to do is basically give you a lecture on a topic you probably don't care about, or if you do, very little. It almost seems like it won't end. I make a point now (he use to drive me nuts, ironically we live together now) to honestly try and take interest in what hes saying. Generally if the topic has been carried on too long, I try to find something to shift the topic away based on something he has said.

Like I said, not all are alike, and just be friendly. I met some of my brothers old friends who were much less functioning and tended to avoid people and social interaction all together.
posted by handbanana at 1:09 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, spectrum people usually don't mask their feelings, so "reading" him and his interest level probably will not be as difficult as you think!
posted by biograd08 at 1:12 PM on June 29, 2012

The most important thing is that you be genuine. Be real. Be yourself.
In that same way that children can tell when adults are being fake -
he will know if you are being fake with him.

Being sincere is often the most valuable thing you can do.
posted by Flood at 1:38 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not knowing what kind of "family event" this is; here's what I've come up with based on my experience of being the socially awkward brother.

Scenario: It's a Fourth of July BBQ/Picnic/Shindig with 8+ people attending, maybe even kids. He's there because he has to be not because he wants to be there.

He'll separate himself from the main group at some point. Give him a few minutes to be alone, don't pounce on him. Then walk over to him, but not too close, and say something. That's it. When the conversation lulls (don't expect more than a few minutes), leave.

Be aware that a large gathering like this is not the best place to try and get to know him.
posted by zinon at 2:12 PM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sounds a lot like my roommate. I introduce him to my friends and it usually takes 6-8 events before he becomes comfortable enough to participate in conversation. Until then he is very quiet, near monosyllabic, and seems very uncomfortable.

The point being, don't expect to get close to this guy over the course of a day, no matter how agreeable and interested you try to be. It may take him several times of meeting you before he loosens up.

In my roommate's case, about the best a person can do is simply act comfortable in his presence and be okay sitting with him quietly passing time. Seem friendly, don't interrogate, don't focus the conversation on him, and let him know it was nice meeting him at the end.
posted by griselda at 3:37 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think you need to let go of what they told you about him.

This. It's a pet peeve of mine (it has a collar and its own water dish and everything) when people are handed what's essentially gossip about someone, and they use that to form an impression of someone they have never met! You should take the brother on his own terms and form your own opinion of him based on *your* interaction with him, just like you should do with anyone else.
posted by parrot_person at 3:39 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also - don't be fake. Be yourself. Some people feel like autism/asperger's means your completely socially inept, but my brother can pin point a douchebag from a mile away. If his sister loves you, there's a good chance he'll think you're a great guy if you're just yourself.

I think this is important. One of the things I have noticed is that people on this spectrum absolutely DO notice social cues. It's just that they can't differentiate the socially unacceptable ones, or process mixed signals well. So if someone is acting all charming, but is making "get me out of here" facial expressions, people with ASDs may not be able to process that and freak out a little bit. It's not so much social ineptness, as it is a lack of ability or desire to bullshit or be bullshitted at.

They may want to chat with you, but might be overwhelmed by sensory inputs to be able to do so comfortably. You don't want to interrogate, but "interview" might be a tactic. They may not feel comfortable directing the conversation, so you'll have to direct it for them.

The best advice for interacting with someone like that is to treat them completely normally, but read their signals a bit more literally and offer them an "out". If they start to look uncomfortable, invite them to change contexts. "Hey, those desserts look good, want to go get some?" If they say no, take them at their word. If you need to extract yourself from a lecture, just say why you are leaving. "Jim, I hate to interrupt you, but I need to hit the bathroom and then I need to say hello to Uncle Fontaine before he leaves."
posted by gjc at 4:51 PM on June 29, 2012

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