How can I teach someone on the Asperger's Spectrum Social Skills?
May 19, 2014 11:28 AM   Subscribe

How can I teach an adult on the Asperger's/Autism Spectrum social skills specifically tailored to the office environment?

Here's the background: I think this person is on the spectrum, but I am not truly sure. It could just be a social/emotional awareness issue, too. I.Q. is high, interested heavily in one thing, behaviorally awkward at times, too loud at socially inappropriate times, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, very much a black/white thinker, somewhat robotic and feels a need for things to be "just so" in situations, (i.e. must drink so many ounces of water per hour, must watch tv show or film from start to finish, must open all windows or no windows at all). Is awkward among people, talks to everyone very matter-of-factly, is able to manipulate to get what wants. Says that one more sentence that gets him/her in trouble.

How do you bring someone into awareness? Then, how do you teach someone to interact with people in a professional setting? I talk about "playing the game" at work, things cannot always go your way. Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it with people at work. I'm not sure this stuff is getting through because she/he feels that the relationship must be genuine, or it is like lying to someone.

I'm curious to hear what you think. I don't know what the glitch is, is it that she/he does not want to change?

Thank you!
posted by Jewel98 to Human Relations (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Do they want to figure this out? I'd start with a memoir I just read, and then the follow up:

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's Paperback
by John Elder Robison

Be Different: My Adventures with Asperger's and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families, and Teachers Paperback
by John Elder Robison
posted by tilde at 11:35 AM on May 19, 2014

Um. You're throwing around a lot of words that involve professional evaluation. Are you a professional qualified to make these evaluations? Why do you seem to be making it your job to "fix" this person? Do they want you to?
posted by Su at 11:37 AM on May 19, 2014 [20 favorites]

A friend who has always been like this was sent by her workplace to a seminar on "soft skills," where they talked to her about this kind of thing. If you're in that kind of relationship (supervisory?) maybe you can suggest a class that would help.

But if you are not a supervisor, a parent, or a mentor, I would butt out.
posted by chaiminda at 11:41 AM on May 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

You're not sure they're on the spectrum? Sounds like it's none of your business and you should back off.

I think your best bet here is to think of this as "how to get along with a coworker who is tough to get along with", and not really in a therapeutic/pathology context.

It sounds like you maybe work with this person in a supervisory capacity? I would just supervise them like you would anyone else and stay away from "autism" type stuff. You can only help people so much, and if they lack the necessary social skills to function well in the workplace, that's life. You're not this person's mom or teacher, you're her supervisor/coworker.
posted by Sara C. at 11:44 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Quick google brought this up: A Guide to Supporting Employees with Asperger Syndrome.

This is a book aimed at Asperger's folks in the workplace, but it will give you some insight into the challenges. It's a good book.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:17 PM on May 19, 2014

I don't know what the glitch is, is it that she/he does not want to change?

If, and that is a big if, this is a spectrum/Asperger's situation, it is really insulting to call this a "glitch", and act as if this is something they can "get over". Even if the person is simply an inconsiderate clod, calling parts of their personality a glitch... I'm not sure I am so OK with that.

Maybe you should be the person reading about dealing with Asperger's, or other spectrum type disorders, instead of trying to "fix" this person.
posted by kellyblah at 12:20 PM on May 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, adult diagnosed with Asperger's a couple years ago, here. First, for me, nothing works until I can get my sensory overload under control. I know most of the social etiquette, but if all my attention and energy is on not having a meltdown because the damn A/C is whistling in the duct 20 feet away, I'm sunk. Same thing if I'm wearing itchy fabric. Can't work jobs that require a uniform.

If those issues are controlled, the nature of your relationship will be a big factor. Do you have an unequal power relationship with this person? Being told to change might feel threatening or offensive. I had a boss offer to send me to "some sort if classes" so I could "learn not to be so introverted." I was pissed. My particular role at that time kind of required an introvert, and asking me to learn how to be something I would only ever be mediocre at, at the expense of what I was really good at, was threatening to me. If, however, you are a supervisor and already have good communication with this person, offering to send them to a soft-skills class might be the best thing ever.

I'm really lucky. I find people fascinating. I love learning about them. I'm always observing them. I've always felt like an alien anthropologist. If you can find and encourage that angle in this person, they will only need the raw resources, and will do the work (obsessively) themselves.

The thing about feeling like a liar if you're not totally honest all the time is something I still really struggle with. I often remind myself that most people don't want my truth, and many don't deserve it. Wanting to be super-honest can come off as rude, but for me it's a facet of too much trust. I don't expect people to use my truth against me, since I'm so very careful with theirs.

I am happily, successfully, employed. My Asperger's actually works to my advantage in a lot of ways, now, but I had to learn the minutia of my particular brand of Asperger's so I could actively seek out the right environment and job for me.

Bottom line, what this person actually wants and what your role in their life is will determine if there's even a chance of this person learning how to better blend in. Is that something they want? They're allowed to not want that and to want a different sort of life than you are envisioning for them. And seriously, deal with the sensory stuff first. Feel free to memail me if you have more questions.
posted by tllaya at 12:26 PM on May 19, 2014 [22 favorites]

Agree that you should stay away from the diagnostic jargon, and perhaps stay away from all of it unless you are this person's supervisor or have otherwise been charged with helping this person develop the needed social skills.

But, assuming you are committed to this venture - be blunt. Tell (and show) exactly what is expected of them in certain situations. Don't make it a personality thing - make it a "this is what is expected in a professional workplace" thing. Model it. Practice it with them privately. But most importantly, pull them aside when they make a mistake or cross a boundary and bluntly say "you should not have done X. You should have done Y or Z instead." Don't be afraid of hurting their feelings - remind yourself that you are taking the long view and saving them some big embarassment down the road.
posted by trivia genius at 12:29 PM on May 19, 2014

Leaving aside the question of diagnosis, I will try to answer your question straightforwardly.

I am the parent of a young man who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and is most certainly on the spectrum. He has and does demonstrate many of the traits you've described here. He's now in college and working a part-time job. This is the first part-time job he's been able to hold for more than two weeks (he's almost up to 6 months now!).

I am sorry to inform you that you are not going to be able to "fix" any of these behaviors or "bring them into awareness". The "glitch", as you put it, is in a different world-view with a different set of base assumptions.

My son is very high functioning, and very intelligent, and we've been working on these same sorts of issues since he was seven years old... and they are still significant challenges. We've focused on teaching coping mechanisms and skills for years. In general, it has helped tremendously; but these challenges are ones he's going to face on an on-going basis.

My recommendation is that you also focus on coping strategies. Just because this person is awkward and hard to get along with, doesn't mean they don't have a lot to offer. That said, you won't be doing anyone any favors by pretending that the challenges aren't there.

If you are in a supervisory role, then I advise that you be very honest about whatever the challenges are. In fact, be blunt... euphemism or metaphor could very well be completely lost on them. Also, please make certain that your expectations are clear and unambiguous.

Bad: "Those kind of jokes tend to make people feel uncomfortable. Maybe you shouldn't say things like that." Good: "That kind of joke is offensive to some of the people that work here because of [reasons]. Don't make those kinds of jokes because it could get you fired."

Getting into arguments about interpretations or whose "fault" a certain awkwardness is or whether someone else is justified in being offended or any of the scores of other ways our social machinery can get gritty and hot and yucky.... is completely futile. I advise against heavy debate. Stick to concrete things... "That kind of behavior will get you fired." Or "If you piss him off, he's not going to help us on our next project." Or "Getting that last word in will screw us over with the client." Or even "No, you're not going to the conference because last time you pissed off our main contact." Not up for discussion, just letting them know. If they care at all, they may learn to navigate these sorts of obstacles at your workplace, and it will become the "normal set of rules" that they just have to follow to get along at this job.

Being honest, straightforward, and even blunt, especially if done in a safe environment where you can talk plainly and not be overheard is very likely to be something respected and appreciated by the recipient... once they get over the initial discomfort.

That said, though many of the behaviors are typical, people on the spectrum are just as varied (if not more so) as the rest of us so-called normal people. At the end of the day, we do all have to learn to give and take to get along, and they are no exception to that.

If you're willing to put in the effort to help them come up with coping mechanisms that work in your environment, then awesome! You are way ahead of the vast majority of supervisors out there in the world.

On Preview, I see this answer is getting long and wordy. I am willing to talk more about it if you like... feel free to memail me.
posted by Lafe at 12:33 PM on May 19, 2014 [17 favorites]

Other people aren't broken toys waiting for us to fix them.

You don't know the person's diagnosis or if they see themselves as having a problem. If you are in a supervisory role and this is creating a workplace disturbance, then address the work issues. If you're just a coworker or peer, then trying to fix other people isn't your job.
posted by 26.2 at 12:36 PM on May 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

And, oh my goodness, take Lafe's advice and instruction to heart.
posted by tllaya at 12:39 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound like you are close enough to this person to make him or her change, and from what you describe, this person could have any number of potential diagnoses or combination of diagnoses. And still yet, there's a possibility this person doesn't have any of those and is just who this person is. Quite frankly, with what you described the spectrum didn't even ping my radar compared to other possibilities.

One of two things have to happen in order for a person to make changes:

1. They are distressed by something they do and/or feel. Is this person distressed?
2. They are experiencing consequences associated with actions or thoughts, and the consequences are distressing to them or impacting their ability to function. Is this person experiencing consequences as a result of these actions or thoughts and/or is this person demonstrating an inability to function as a result of them?

Neither seem to be the case with what you stated.

And quite frankly, it's just not your business unless you are close to this person. If you are a supervisor trying to facilitate office relations, then it's a bit different, but still quite probably not your business.
posted by zizzle at 12:39 PM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Then, how do you teach someone to interact with people in a professional setting? I talk about "playing the game" at work, things cannot always go your way. Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it with people at work. I'm not sure this stuff is getting through because she/he feels that the relationship must be genuine, or it is like lying to someone.

It is possible to be honest and genuine and still polite and respectful. There is some evidence that managing to do both of those (honest and genuine being one thing and polite and respectful being the other) causes people to get ahead better in business than "playing the game" (ie being superficially manipulative for short term gain). If you want to help this individual, you need to talk learn about that and talk about that. I agree with this individual's assessment that "playing the game" is like lying. FWIW, I wouldn't trust you once you told me this about yourself.
posted by Michele in California at 1:31 PM on May 19, 2014

Just, no. Talk about specific, observable behaviours that directly impact tasks and team functioning. *Ask* the employee what they think. They may have a diagnosis and have chosen not to disclose. They may not, actually, have a psychological problem. They may have one and yet lack insight. In none of those cases is it, at all, appropriate for a manager to make pre-emptive diagnostic assumptions.

Talk about behaviours within the scope of work. Negotiate a plan to address issues directly impacting work functions. If work is severely impacted, at least get the input of a consultant psychologist if you don't have one on staff, before suggesting the employee pursue diagnostic evaluation. Otherwise, myob.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:46 PM on May 19, 2014

Asperger's on the Job is a great book. I learned a lot from it.
posted by rglass at 2:08 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I apologize for diagnosing when i should have known better than to do that in the first place. I am not in a supervisory position. I am trying to help a friend. Thanks to those who gave responses with good information, and were able to move past my terribly-formed question.
posted by Jewel98 at 5:42 PM on May 19, 2014

Trying to totally revamp a friend's personality is not "helping" them.

You list a bunch of traits as though they are all negative, when many of them can be very positive in the right context. People who are heavily interested in one thing, even obsessive-compulsively so, for example, are often the ones who propel scientific advancement. People who speak "matter-of-factly" are also honest and refreshingly forthright. You know where you stand with them.

Learn to basically accept your friend the way they are, or don't be friends. Right now, it sounds like you want to change the basics of who they are rather than just helping them identify how to better navigate through the neurotypical world.

The people who wrote that they were concerned that you seemed like you were butting into your friend's life unasked ARE giving you good information.

Ask yourself: Why are you so invested in changing this person? What are you distracting yourself from in your own life? Why do you want to be friends with this person when you seem to view them so negatively?
posted by mysterious_stranger at 9:59 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey, I don't think you need to apologize. I was not intending to be snarky, judgmental, or otherwise negative.

I have two adult sons in their mid twenties with these types of issues. I answered in brief with what works with them -- talk about how to be both honest and polite -- because they are mid twenties and this has been a long, on-going process. I really do not know how to wrap that up in some kind of nutshell any better than what I said above: Honest and politeness are not an either/or thing. You can do both. It is easier to do one or the other. But it is not impossible to do both.

I have no reason to believe I am aspie but I am "excessively honest" for various reasons. It helped me to realize there is never enough time in the day to "tell the truth, the whole truth" to everyone all the time. Just limitations of time and all that means that everyone is just getting bits and pieces of the truth, so I don't need to sweat so much about just giving people some bits and pieces that are true.

That may be a semantic game or something in your eyes. I don't like manipulation and I don't like lying. I have strongly held convictions about how that kind of thing fucks with people's heads and I intensely dislike it. But we just aren't always going to have ALL the details about something, if only due to time constraints. And that has made it easier for me lighten up about not feeling compelled to say "that one extra thing" which your remarks suggest may be one of the things getting this person in trouble. It is okay to be honest but not ...shove too much info at people.

These are things I discuss a lot with my sons. Again, other than the "in a nutshell" explanation I gave previously, I don't know how to explain it. It has grown out of years and years of discourse to help all three of us figure out how to be very honest and not just shoot ourselves in the foot constantly.

Sorry if my previous reply came across negatively. It wasn't really intended that way.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 2:40 PM on May 21, 2014

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