Reading the Room
Sept. 13, 2021
We have found that the best way to learn social skills is by total immersion in the community in small groups or individually with enough support to keep everyone safe. This provides the constant demand for social skills practice. It exposes us to different people and situations so we can practice responding in socially appropriate ways. Temple Grandin, a famous and successful adult with autism, talks of how her mother made her interact with her guests at social events in the 1950s. She had to wear dresses, shake hands and take coats. This gave her a chance to practice the rigid social skills taught to girls at a young age in that era. While many of these social norms of the 1950s do not exist in our society today, they have been replaced not eliminated. There are social norms in all societies and as they relax, the right and wrong way of doing something becomes more grey than black and white. While this allows for a more open-minded society, it does not make it easier for individuals to learn to stay within the bounds of social norms. The “right way” to act in the 1950s may have relaxed into several choices that are within social norms today. The choice of several right answers requires judgement, and it is only through exposure to situations that we can learn to make that judgement. Individuals with autism have less trouble remembering the right answer than they do judging the situation and picking the best answer. In the same way that a standup comedian might find that one joke gets a lot of laughs in one part of the country but gets a negative reaction in another part of the country. To be successful, the comedian needs to be able to change their routine when they see the reaction they are getting. They learn from experience how to “read the room”. “Reading the room” is a skill that is only acquired through being exposed to a variety of “rooms” which require your “reading” for success. There is a limit to what can be read through fake scenarios because the spectrum of reactions that could happen are endless and ever changing. This kind of training must be done in real life to be successful, and the experience of a positive reaction will not give us the feedback we need in a fake scenario. Social relationships and interactions only achieve the positive feelings we need if they are genuine. Genuine does not mean life-lasting or deep. A successful interaction with a store clerk who we will likely not see again, can be as genuine as a romantic relationship. As we have put this idea into practice, we have discovered that large groups of people with something in common do not foster social interaction outside of the group. A sports team traveling together will not be able to have the same kind of social interactions that a person or couple will have in the general public. If we see a family having a birthday picnic in a park, we will tend not to want to interrupt them, but if we see someone alone walking their dog, we might start a conversation. The same holds true for individuals with disabilities. In large groups, there is a much lower chance of interaction outside of group because outsiders will assume that the group wants to interact with each other. Because of this phenomenon, we keep groups to no more than 4 individuals including caregivers. This gives us the best chance at positive, genuine social interactions.