There was a recent study where researchers used a fMRI machine to study brain regions responsible for social abilities on people with autism before and after a five week social skills camp (one hour, twice a week).
The results were groundbreaking. Social skills training actually does help improve emotional recognition. That means that teaching us how to interact with neurotypicals will make us better at noticing when we’ve upset them.
Do you have any idea how huge this is? It’s obvious to us that this is the case, because we tell each other this all of the time in our support groups, but science has made it official with brain scans and experiments. This has been a great month for autism awareness.
Social skills play a huge part of our every day lives. People with autism often have difficulties interpreting others, causing misunderstandings. The sooner we learn the skills we need to cultivate relationships, the more successful we are as adults.
There is a lot of focus on making our lives easier by controlling our symptoms, but another aspect of autism is our difficulties with the social world around us.
Bullying on the Spectrum
I remember elementary school like it happened yesterday.
In first grade, I made friends with this kid named Micah, who would translate different social customs for me. He was the first friend who would do this for me, and his social status protected me for a little while.
I moved a few times between second and fourth grade. I found it hard to make friends and I constantly faltered. The end of elementary school was tougher because I wasn’t sure about the other kids. I would think that they were my friends and they would make fun of me, and once I figured out they didn’t like me I would just stop hanging around. Solo jump rope was what I spent recess doing.
Middle school was ruthless. We moved again right before sixth grade, and I remember my first day someone made fun of me for my accent and haircut. I stopped telling my parents when people were making fun of me because I felt like I was constantly complaining. We moved again and I managed to make some friends, who helped me navigate though teenage girl evil plots.
63% of children on the spectrum experience bullying. These children will become adults, and they need those support services now, not later, because the sooner that kids get the social support they need, the quicker they’ll progress to emotional recognition. We need to get schools involved with changing policies and advocate for these children. The more apt they are to recognize their peers’ emotions, the less likely the are to be made fun of.
This, combined with the anti-bullying movement, will produce peaceful, intellectual progression.
Okay, so how do social skills affect empathy with autistic people?
Learning social skills IS learning empathy. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, the same way a student doesn’t want to fail a test. When the student cannot pass the test, the teacher needs teach the student in a way the student can understand. The very notion that teaching us about you will make us more apt to recognize your pain is the meaning of learned empathy.
The more skills I acquire, the more I’m able to see in “real-time” what’s happening with any one person. For example, I can see when someone is anxious because they’re shoulders are risen, quickened speech, flushed skin. I just have to wait for a conversational exchange so I can hear if they are going to tell me about their anxiety or if the conversation is intellectual in nature.
Learning social skills made me quicker and smarter. When I’m not anxious about the situation, my brain pulls information so much quicker. Anxiety always slows me down. I can’t think straight when I’m emotional, and emotional includes being anxious because I don’t know what to say or do.
When I was younger and less “empathetic”, I used to “comfort” people who were crying to me by saying I wasn’t sure how what to do about them crying. And I would say it awkwardly with my hands like sort of waving, and a half laugh. Then I would reach out my arms like I was going to hug them, and then pull them back over and over because I don’t like to be touched when I’m uncomfortable until eventually I verified if my next move should be a hug. It was a mess.
How to Help
Awareness alone is not enough. Neurotypicals have to educate themselves about autism and social differences to expect. People on the spectrum have to have acceptance. It’s a basic human need.
Change must be affected. In order for us to change the world together, we must first be willing to change ourselves. Both neurotypicals and autistic people alike must be willing to adapt our own thought patterns to those around us, and look outside our own perspectives. It’s important to accept each other’s quirks and flaws. Even if we aren’t born this way, we can learn.
Mindfulness is essential to change of the self. Practicing mindfulness has health benefits, social benefits, and emotional benefits.
Are you on the spectrum? Do you force eye contact to make the neurotypical feel comfortable, even though it hurts and you’re suffering because of it? Do you refrain from stimming because you don’t want to seem weird, even though it’s tough to concentrate while holding it in? Do you choose to remain silent because you don’t want to make waves or be put on the spot, even though the subject is your special interest?
Are you interested in attending a camp like the one in the study? Here are some options:
http://www.veryspecialcamps.com/summer/social-skills-camp/ (list of camps around the country)
https://recsports.berkeley.edu/social-skills-camps/ (children and teens)