This guide is aimed at adolescents and adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It looks at social skills, social skills training groups and social groups and also suggests ways in which people with an ASD can meet and form positive relationships with others.
People with an ASD often find social situations very difficult. There are so many social rules that people without an ASD learn instinctively. People with an ASD often have to work at learning these rules. It can often be confusing and cause anxiety as many social rules are unwritten and not spoken about.
Unfortunately it would be impossible to fit every helpful idea into this guide, but it does offer some basic suggestions that you could begin to think about. Discussing these with someone you feel safe with (e.g. a family member or key worker) may help you to think of some other ideas.
How can I start a conversation?
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.
Approach the person but stop when you are about an arm's length away and face them.
Saying 'Hello' is normally a good way to start a conversation. Try to think of some other good greetings as well, eg 'Hi' to a friend or 'Excuse me' if you wish to attract someone's attention. It is important to remember that the appropriate type of greeting changes depending on the situation and person you are speaking to, eg you may say 'Hiya' to a friend but 'Hello' to your boss.
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 address elder relatives by their name but call them Aunt, Uncle, Grandma as appropriate. Think about the names that you use when you speak to the people in your family.
If the person you speak to answers 'Hello' (or something similar) it usually means that they want 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. Some ideas of things to say here are:
- How are you?
- It's nice to see you.
- Did you enjoy the film/concert/TV programme? (If you have watched one)
Try writing down some other general questions and topics that you can use when you are talking to other people.
What should I say during a conversation?
Remember to 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.
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. However, it is not appropriate to talk to some people about certain topics. It is probably a good idea to avoid talking about them if you do not know the person well. Try to make a list of things that are and are not appropriate to talk about.
Examples of appropriate topics of conversation
- The weather
- Programmes that are on the television
Examples of inappropriate topics of conversation
- Critical comments about a persons appearance (eg saying that you do not like their clothes)
- Money (eg asking someone how much money they earn)
If you find it hard to understand that someone else may feel differently to you, you may not realise that not everyone is as interested in a certain topic or activity as you are. You may want to talk about it a lot but the other person may not be as interested or knowledgeable about the subject as you are. If you are talking to someone about a topic and they begin to look like they want to end the conversation you could say 'Would you like me to tell you more?' or 'Would you like to talk about something else?'. However, sometimes the person will want to end the conversation altogether for another reason. For example, they may need to get to work.
You may also find it difficult to tell how someone else is feeling because they are not actually saying how they feel and you find it difficult to read body language and facial expressions. What is appropriate to say to them will sometimes be different depending on how they are feeling about the subject. 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.
In this situation 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. In this situation, instead of focusing on how you feel 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. This is called 'empathy' and shows other people that you are a kind and caring person. You could discuss with your family member or carer other situations that may require you to show empathy.
Cambridge University Autism Research Centre has developed a CD-ROM programme called Mind Reading. It was developed to help people with an ASD to recognise the emotion that someone is feeling using their facial expression. The Mind Reading CD-ROM has been very successful and researchers at the University hope to be able to make a device that tells people with an ASD what emotion another person is feeling using a small camera and computer in the future. However, research into this is in the very early stages and so it will be a while before this is available.
How can I end a conversation?
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
Do not get upset if a person does this. Sometimes it is better to end a conversation before you run out of things to say.
If you want to end the conversation, say something like, "Well I'd better be going now" before saying "Goodbye" because it is more polite than just saying "Goodbye" and walking away. Try to think of some other ways to end a conversation.
Making friends can be difficult for people with an ASD but once you have established them they can be enjoyable. You will have someone to go out with, talk about things you enjoy and discuss your problems with.
It can be difficult to tell if someone is not a real friend. This can be especially difficult for people with an ASD. This is because the signs that someone is pretending to be your friend are often very difficult to detect because they include body language and tone of voice. You may not find it easy to notice these.
Marc Segar wrote about his experiences in a survival guide for people with an ASD to help improve their social skills. You can read it here. The section called 'Finding the right friends' may help you to discover whether someone is a real friend. The ideas below are based on some of Marc Segar's:
A true friend
- Will always make you feel welcome and talk to you if they have the time.
- Will treat you the same way that they treat all of their friends.
Someone pretending to be a friend
- Will sometimes make you feel welcome but show signs that they do not want to talk almost immediately.
- May treat you differently to their other friends.
Telling people that you have an autism spectrum disorder
Sometimes people find others who behave differently to themselves hard to understand. People without an ASD 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 your differences and communicate well with you is to tell them that you have an ASD. Obviously, it is your choice whether or not to tell people but it can often be a positive decision.
You do not have to go into great detail about what an ASD is. Perhaps you could tell them about the triad of impairments and the difficulties that you have because of this. Things to think about include:
- Communication - Do you find body language difficult to understand? Do you find it hard to tell what emotion others are feeling? Do you find it difficult to say what you mean?
- Imagination - Do you find it difficult to imagine how someone else feels? Do you find it distressing when things change? Do you have a special interest?
- Social interaction - Do you prefer to be alone? Do you find it difficult to make friends? Do you find it difficult to keep a conversation going?
Not all of these difficulties will apply to you. You could ask someone who knows you well how you behave differently in social situations in comparison to someone who does not have an ASD. Knowing this can be very useful as you will then be able to tell people about these difficulties and also work on improving them.
You can also buy an Autism Alert card from the NAS to carry with you. These give information about ASD and are credit card sized, with a space for writing an emergency contact number. The NAS also sells credit card sized information cards that you can give to people you meet so that they have information about either autism or Asperger syndrome. These can be ordered from our online shop.
We have some factsheets that you can give to employers and colleagues to help them to support you and communicate effectively with you. You can find these at www.autism.org.uk/employers
Social skills: important things to remember
Here are some additional ideas and things to remember to help you when dealing with social situations. This does not cover every possible situation you may find yourself in, but it does provide advice for some of the most common circumstances:
- Rules change depending on the situation and person you are speaking to. For example, it would be appropriate to say 'Hiya' to a friend but 'Hello' to your boss. A good example of this is the story of a man who was told that it was polite to go up to people and smile and shake their hand when he met them. This was appropriate most of the time. However, when he attended a family member's funeral people thought he was being insensitive because he was walking around with a big smile when they were feeling sad.
- If you make a mistake and upset someone it does not mean they do not like you. Usually, saying sorry helps. If you are not sure what you have done to upset someone, ask.
- Sometimes it is ok not to tell the truth to make someone else happy (eg saying they do not look fat, even if they do). Some people call these 'little white lies'. Try thinking of some situations where this may be the case with a family member or key worker.
- Saying 'please' and 'thank you' is appropriate in all situations. This shows other people that you are a polite person.
- Even if you do not want to socialise with other people and prefer to be on your own, it is a good idea to develop your social skills. In particular, the links below to advice about having a conversation may be useful. These will help you to act in an appropriate way when you are in a social situation that you cannot avoid, eg a family party. Again, this will show other people that you are a polite person.
How can I develop and practise social skills?
Social skills groups are run in some areas of the country. They usually focus on the main areas that people with an ASD find difficult, including those discussed in other sections of this article, such making friends and having a conversation. Other social skills covered include identifying and expressing emotions, problem solving, body language and tone of voice.
You can search for details of social skills groups in your area at www.autism.org.uk/directory. If you contact the Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104 they can also do a search for you.
You could also ask a family member, carer or friend to help you practise social skills. You could do this using role play. Things that you could practise include approaching people, starting a conversation, taking turns and ending a conversation. You could ask the people who know you well which skills they think it would be a good idea for you to practise.
Join a social group
Social groups provide the opportunity to meet others and socialise in a safe environment. They do not offer structured social skills training but are a good place to practise those that you have learnt. All groups operate differently. Most meet on a regular basis, e.g. weekly or monthly, and at an agreed place, e.g. a pub or community hall. The activities will vary depending on the interests of the members. Some may focus on one activity, such as drama, whilst others may offer a wider range of activities, such as cinema one week and bowling the next.
You can also search for details of social groups in your area at www.autism.org.uk/directory
. If you contact the NAS Helpline on 0808 800 4104 they can search for you.
The NAS is currently developing a social programmes service. This will include social groups, user representation groups and social skills training. You can find out about these by visiting our social programmes web page. For details of groups and events that your regional social programmes team are providing you can contact our Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104.
Web resources and chatrooms
There are a number of other groups and organisations that offer opportunities for meeting and socialising with other people with an ASD. You can find out more about each one by visiting their website:
National Autistic Society online community
The community is for people on the autism spectrum and their parents and carers. You can register to post your thoughts, questions and experiences.
Aspergers 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. This section allows people with AS to get in touch with others with the possibility of arranging to meet up.
Independent living On the Autistic Spectrum
This is an online support group for people with an ASD. As well as allowing you to communicate with others through email you can visit their websites and list your own if you have one.
This is a magazine written by and for people with an ASD. You can read the latest issue online and if you have an ASD you can subscribe for free. You can also telephone 020 7903 3595 or email email@example.com for more information.
This web community aims to help people with any disability, be it physical or social, find friendship and/or love.
This is an organisation that 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. This approach is sometimes called ‘Circle of Friends’ or ‘Circle of Support’. Circles Network also has other projects running all around the country.
How can I meet and socialise with people who do not have an ASD?
There are lots of different types of social groups running around the country. Many of these meet because members have similar interests (e.g. sports, reading, art or religion). For someone with an ASD, joining a social group where the members have similar interests to your own would be beneficial. This is because you would have something to talk about and to use to start conversations. People at these groups will probably be keen to talk about your special interest if they enjoy it too.
Do keep in mind that some social groups require you to become a member to attend and for this you sometimes have to pay. It may be a good idea to call the organiser to find out about this to avoid disappointment.
Learning a new skill can often lead to making new friends. Your local Adult Education Centre may run daytime and evening courses and some of these are specifically aimed at people with disabilities. Some examples of skills you may be able to learn include art, IT and cooking. Details of your local Adult Education Centre will be in your local telephone directory but you can also search for courses in your area at the Learn Direct website.
Social skills: useful reading and resources
If you'd like to find out more about developing social skills then there are a number of further books and resources that you will find helpful:
- Attwood, T. (2008). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley
Chapter 3 ‘Social understanding and friendship ’ in particular offers many good ideas and there is a useful list of resources in the appendix. He also has an excellent web site at www.tonyattwood.com which is full of interesting advice and papers.
- Baron-Cohen, S. (2004) Mind reading: emotions library [CD-ROM]. London: Jessica Kingsley
Baron-Cohen, S. (2004) Mind reading: the interactive guide to the emotions. [DVD or CD-ROM] London: Jessica Kingsley
Helps the user to study emotions and improve their skill at recognising the expression of emotions in the faces and voices of other people. The Interactive guide is the complete programme, the Emotions library can be bought more cheaply as a separate item.
- Buron, K. et al (2012) Social behavior and self management: 5-point scales for adolescents and adults. Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
A useful book with its 5-point scale approach to social interaction skills, managing stress and anxiety, and practical examples of self-monitoring
- Csoti, M (2000). People skills for young adults. London: Jessica Kingsley
This is a course designed to improve social skills. Some of the tasks will help you to improve skills such as listening, self-disclosure, assertiveness and saying No.
- Face-cards [CD-ROM] (2007). Edinburgh: Dunedin Multimedia http://www.face-cards.com/index.html
A set of flash cards designed for people with autism, Asperger syndrome or anyone who needs help with understanding feelings and faces, and a CD-ROM with games and activities for learning emotion expressions. It includes 'eye-gaze', an activity for building eye contact skills.
- Grandin, T (1999). Social Problems: Understanding emotions and developing talents.
Temple Grandin, a woman with an autism spectrum disorder, offers some excellent ideas in her rule system for social interaction and behaviour. Download from:
- Marc Segar's online 'A survival guide for people with Asperger syndrome' offers advice on topics ranging from body language and conversation skills to finding the right friends amongst many other things. Download from: http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~alistair/survival/
- Social Stories devised by Carol Gray are designed to help people with ASD to understand social concepts and other peoples feelings. For further information go to www.thegraycenter.org or call the NAS Autism helpline.
There are a number of apps for devices like the iPhone and iPad that are interesting and very interactive:
A social script app that helps young adults on the autism spectrum to handle new situations and learn new skills.
Really aimed at children and young adults but in addition to using the specific content, users can modify the stories by adding different photos, text, as well as audio. The end results allows for the individual to look at a social photo, touch the picture for audio, and continue onto the next page
Emotion-x – Dunedin Multimedia http://www.dunedinmultimedia.com/index.html
Shows 30 of the most common emotion expressions.
Last updated: April 2013
Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/socialskills