You might find social situations difficult. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, yet they can also struggle to build rapport with autistic people. You may feel that your social differences mean other people don't understand you.
Here we offer information about conversations, making friends and socialising, telling people you’re autistic, and where to find out more.
How can I approach someone?
If the person you would like to talk to is already talking to someone else, especially if it is someone you do not know, it may be better to speak to them later when they are free.
If the person isn’t already talking to someone else, or is talking to someone you know, approach the person. Stop when you are about an arm's length away and face them.
How can I start a conversation?
Saying 'Hello' is normally a good way to start a conversation, or 'Excuse me' if you wish to attract someone's attention.
The appropriate greeting depends on the situation and person you are speaking to. For example, you might say 'Hiya' to a friend but 'Hello' to your boss or customer.
Using the person's name before or after your greeting will help them to know you are talking to them. In some families, people do not call older relatives by their name but call them Aunt, Uncle, or Grandma as appropriate.
If the person you speak to answers 'Hello' (or something similar) it usually means that they are happy to talk.
It is a good idea to ask some general questions at the beginning of the conversation rather than starting on a certain topic. Here are some ideas.
- How are you?
- It's nice to see you.
- Did you enjoy the film/concert/TV programme? (if you know they have watched one).
Try writing down some other general questions and topics that you can use when you are talking to other people.
What can I talk about?
Some topics are almost always inappropriate. Avoid talking about these if you don’t know the person well. Try to make a list of things that are and are not appropriate to talk about.
Examples of topics that are usually appropriate
- The weather.
- TV programmes.
Examples of topics that are usually inappropriate
- Critical comments about a person’s appearance, eg saying that you do not like their clothes.
- Money, eg asking someone how much money they earn.
Saying 'please' and 'thank you' is appropriate in all situations.
Talk about things that you know the other person likes as well as the things that you like. If you both like the same things then you could talk about these.
Take it in turns when talking to someone. Let them answer your questions and give them a chance to ask you one in return if they want to.
Talking about feelings
What is appropriate to say to a person will depend on how they are feeling about the subject. You may find it difficult to tell how someone else is feeling. They might not actually say how they feel and you might find it difficult to read body language and facial expressions.
If you are not sure how someone is feeling, you can ask them. Here is an example of a situation where this may be a good idea.
A friend tells you that they have to move house because they have a new job.
Your friend may feel sad that they have to move away or excited because they have a new job. To make sure that you understand how they feel you could say 'How does that make you feel?'. Your friend may tell you that they are happy to be moving house because they are excited about the new job. However, you may feel sad because they will be moving far away from you. You could say 'I'm glad you are happy because you have a new job. I do feel sad though because you will be moving far away.' This means you will be talking about their feelings as well as your own.
Sometimes people don’t tell the truth because they want to make the other person happy. For example, if someone asks another if they look fat, they might answer ‘No’ even though they think they do look fat. Some people call these 'little white lies'.
If someone is upset about something you’ve said or done in a conversation, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Saying sorry usually helps. If you are not sure why the person is upset, you can ask.
Tools like Mind reading can help you to recognise emotions.
How does a conversation end?
Watch out for signals that someone wants to end a conversation with you. These may include:
- not asking questions back
- looking around the room
- saying they have something else to do.
If you aren’t sure whether they want to carry on with the topic, you could say 'Would you like me to tell you more?' or 'Would you like to talk about something else?'.
You might want to talk about a certain topic a lot, but the other person might not be as interested in it or knowledgeable about it as you are. Sometimes the person will want to end the conversation for another reason, eg they may need to get to work.
You might be disappointed that the person wants to end the conversation, but sometimes it is better to end a conversation before you run out of things to say.
If you want to end the conversation, most people will think it’s more polite for you to say something like "Well I'd better be going now. Goodbye." than for you to just say "Goodbye" then walk away.
Making friends and socialising
You might prefer not to socialise with other people, or you might enjoy friendships, but find it difficult to make friends. Having friends can mean having someone to go out with, talk with about things you enjoy and discuss your problems with.
Clubs and groups
One option is to join a club relating to a subject or activity you are interested in. This could be a sports club, a book club, or a games club. The other members will share your interest, making conversation easier.
You might start going to your local tenants and residents association meeting, or a weekly coffee morning or lunch club in your neighbourhood.
Another option is to join a social group for autistic people. Some groups take part in leisure activities, others focus specifically on developing social skills.
Learning a new skill can often lead to making new friends. Your local college might run daytime and evening courses in things like art, IT and cooking. Find out more about adult education courses.
You might prefer communicating in other ways, such as online. Here are some ideas.
- Our online Community is for people on the autism spectrum and their parents and carers. You can register to post your thoughts, questions and experiences, and discuss those of other Community members.
- Our e-befriending scheme.
- Asperger syndrome meetup. Meetup® is a website that aims to help people all over the world contact each other and they have a section dedicated to Asperger syndrome.
- Asperger United is a magazine written by and for autistic people. You can read the latest issue online and if you are autistic you can subscribe for free.
- Outsiders is a web community which aims to help people with any disability find friendships and form relationships.
Find out about online safety with ChildNet’s Internet safety hot topics and ThinkUKnow’s information about sex, relationships and the Internet.
Who is a real friend?
It can be difficult to tell if someone is not a real friend. You may not find it easy to notice body language and tones of voice that could be a sign that someone is just pretending to be your friend.
Some autistic people have so called ‘friends’ who go on to abuse them. This could be financial, physical or sexual abuse. This is called mate crime. Mate crimes are Disability Hate Crimes and should be reported to the police.
A true friend
- will always make you feel welcome and talk to you if they have the time
- will treat you as well as they treat all of their friends.
Someone pretending to be a friend
- might make unfair requests of you
- might treat you less well than their other friends
- might threaten not to be your friend anymore or play on your guilt if it is to help them get their own way.
Based on advice from Marc Segar
Telling people that you are autistic
Sometimes people find others who behave differently to themselves hard to understand. People who aren’t autistic may find it hard to understand why you may prefer not to look them in the eye whilst you speak or why you like to talk a lot about a special interest.
A way of helping people to understand you and communicate well with you is to tell them that you are autistic. It is your choice whether or not to tell people but it can often be a positive decision.
You could tell them things you’d like them to know (eg that you find it easier to concentrate on a conversation by not making eye contact) and things you’d like them to do (eg tell you when they want to end a conversation). You could tell them they can find out more about autism on our website.
Autism Alert cards are credit-card sized cards give information about autism and have a space for writing an emergency contact number.
Friend or fake easy read booklet, Arc
Arc Safety Net
Quick cues, a social script app that helps autistic teens and young adults to handle new situations.
60 social situations and discussion starters to help teens on the autism spectrum deal with friendships, feelings, conflict and more, a book by Lisa A. Timms.
The independent woman's handbook for super safe living on the autistic spectrum, a book by Robyn Steward.
Circles Network offers support to people who are or are in danger of becoming socially isolated. They arrange ‘Circles of Support’ where a group of people meet to help a person to accomplish their goals in life.
Last updated November 2016