My name is Jennifer, I’m 42 years old, and I have Asperger Syndrome (AS). Lately I’ve been frequently asked to talk or write about dating, friendship, and relationships. This may be partly because I’ve been happily married for 14 years (to a man who also has AS), and socialize reasonably well with the “neurotypical” (NT) population. I have learned over the years that it absolutely is possible for people with AS to develop friendships and relationships with each other, and with NTs. The ways we learn to socialize, and the degree and type of social activities may well differ, but we can socialize more than enough for our own health and well-being.
In trying to help people with AS develop social skills and friendships, parents and family members forget to address one vital question: why socialize? Socializing is often stressful for people with AS. There must be motivation to develop social ties; something a little more compelling than “It’s on your IEP,” or “Because I said so!” The reality is that humans are social animals, and whether those of us who have AS like it or not, we are, in fact, human beings.
However, the social wants and needs of humans vary widely. There are folks who just looooove to socialize incessantly, and who seem to consider their week a dead loss of they have to spend more than a few hours alone. Typically, those of us with AS have much smaller need to socialize, and a much greater need for solitude. Nonetheless, being human means interacting with other humans to reach goals, meet needs—and to practice the skills necessary for reaching our goals and meeting our needs.
For example: many of my fellow Aspergians or Aspies have told me that they don’t want to participate in social activities, but they do want to have a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. The reality is that it’s almost impossible to connect to potential mates, without practical experience in the social world. If you want relationship skills, you need friendship skills. Social isolation is not conducive to developing long term relationships—or even short term ones.
Similarly, if you want to be self-supporting, you need to develop social skills for networking, which is another word for being friendly. Getting jobs requires connecting to other humans, and having Mom do it for you is problematic at best. Employers are leery of someone whose Mom is too involved!
The way humans build social skills is through trial and error, as well as through getting feedback from other people. To build the repertoire of skills needed for survival in the dating process or in job hunts, it is vital for us, as humans, to spend time in a non-hostile social environment so that we can get used to actual social interactions. Not only that, but we need to develop connections to the “social Internet” of humanity that will help us make connections beyond those we reach through our families and professionals.
Some of the places that typical folks meet people are just not healthy for Aspies in general. In my experience, high school at all, and are certainly not good places to learn social skills. Every time I discuss the perils of high-school-based socializing in a presentation, at least one parent writes a note on the feedback form decrying my “anti-teenager” attitude, and saying how there are many nice kids in high schools, and that if I say that high school is bad for people with AS it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And every time I discuss high school and point out that it is a terrible place for Aspies to learn social skills, multiple people with AS from the audience write me notes thanking me for “telling it like it is.”
The reality is that the standard school experiences of the teen years have a huge tendency to be rough on people with AS, and a positive attitude towards school cannot compete with the reality of the social pecking order of the adolescent world. I wish it was otherwise, but I’m trying to provide real-world advice that will benefit real people with AS. The skills people need to excel socially in the world of high school (and the world of K-12 generally!) are not the skills that help people survive and thrive as adults.
For example, being able to bully people without getting caught has very limited value in the adult world; however, in the world of high school, bullies can thrive. In fact, “mean girls” and cruel guys usually thrive in high school, but in the real world, they falter. They have a statistically significant tendency to develop broken relationships and to have difficulty holding jobs. But in high school, they rule and often are considered “good kids” by the adults around them. And the nice kids who do exist have very high standards for admitting people into their circles. Trying to get “in” with them is like trying to crack a safe during a full-scale tank attack.
So school is not necessarily a good place to learn to be social. Nonetheless, there are some specific times and places in high school where one can start learning to build friendships. Any place in the school that is filled with geeks, wonks, and nerds is a good place to engage in the slow but steady process of developing friendships and social skills. AV Club, Chess Club, Drama Club, Band Front, and the Cubing Club are all possibilities. Another really great thing to encourage teens with AS to try is volunteering to help in the resource room or library. These last two are particular helpful as they can provide safety zones for bullied kids. The back room of the school’s library is likely to be monitored by adults and not easily accessed by bullies.
The Outside World
The school scene should not be the full measure of social opportunities for any human, much less one with AS. The nonacademic world has a great variety of groups related to a wide variety of special interests. Model rocket clubs, book discussion groups, and cycling clubs are great places to get social. And while meeting and talking to people online is NOT ever equivalent to social activities in the real world, online searches are a great way to find such groups. It is often easier, more fun, and more fruitful for a seventeen-year-old with an interest in model trains to hang out with model train club members where the average age is fifty than to hang out with other teens. This is a great way to develop the connections that can lead to successful dating and relationships. Yes, the local Jane Austen book club may be a little short on available guys, but the members will have brothers, cousins, sons or male friends. Connecting to any one social circle paves the way for connecting to the larger social world. Statistically speaking, the most successful relationships are those in which the couple were introduced by mutual friends.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Thomas Alva Edison
One great social opportunity that I wish every lonely person with AS could take advantage of is volunteer work. When I was a teenager, my mom got pretty sick of having me mope around the house every summer, so she found a local nursing home that had a summer teen volunteer program. My special interests—old radio shows and Fred Astaire movies—were much more interesting to the nursing home residents than they’d ever been to typical peers. My politeness and tidiness were valued instead of mocked. I worked hard, got valuable job experiences, built up some potential employment references, and actually got to hang out with people who were glad to see me. It was the opposite of high school, and I thrived on being valued.
There are tons of opportunities for volunteer work in most communities. Animal rescues, Habitat for Humanity, and children’s shelters are often hungry for help. Match the work to the person: a super-cleanly aspie might well be welcome to help at a local hospital, while those Aspergians who like to get their hands dirty might be great at cleaning out animals’ pens at the local science museum or zoo. One volunteer opportunity that nongeeks may overlook is local science fiction or comic book conventions. These groups run on volunteer manpower, which can mean a free membership to the convention and opportunities to meet dozens of people who are part of the “geek world” of engineers, scientists, programmers, and librarians! Trust me, the average person with AS is going to be much less “different” when among people who like to discuss topics like maximizing bandwidth and time travel paradoxes!
The Life Lab
These various opportunities to develop friendships and relationships are not just chances to meet people. They are living labs, and should be clearly identified as such. Learning to develop interactions with human beings over time is an ongoing process. No one every interacts perfectly at all times, and no one ever has such great social skills that they never say or do things that cause embarrassment or difficulty.
My way of coping with this reality and turning it to my advantage is to view life as a laboratory where I experiment. Every interaction I have with others is not just an interaction, but also an experiment in relating to humans. Some experiments go as I had hoped; some do not. Some experiments go completely awry and result in outcomes I would never have predicted and definitely did not want! However:
“In the spirit of science, there is really no such thing as a ‘failed experiment.’ Any test that yields valid data is a valid test.”
Adam Savage, Mythbusters
Adam is absolutely right. When an experiment fails, or mistakes happen, those failures and mistakes generate data. The thing to do is to analyze why it failed, and then adjus the procedure for the next experiment accordingly. Sometimes it can take many, many tries to get an experiment to produce a desirable outcome; sometimes it is necessary to abandon one technique completely and begin over.
If I were experimenting in chemistry and had an experiment go wrong, I might seek out an expert in the field of chemistry for advice on what went wrong, or I might consult chemistry reference books. If a social experiment goes wrong, I seek out reliable experts and reference books. The shelf next to my desk has a set of books that I reference often for this purpose. They include the following, which I fervently believe should be in every home in the country (if not the world):
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- Social Psychology by David Myers (no relation)
- Reading People by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius and Wendy Patrick Mazzerella
- If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? by Susan Page
Yes, although I’m happily married, I keep one or two of the very few reliable dating books that exist handy for general information on the interactions involved in romantic relationships.
Seeking out reliable books, and people who have social expertise, is its own experiment. As a parent, teacher, or other person involved in an Aspie’s life, the reliability and accuracy of the social information you give can (and should) be an indicator of whether you should be used as an “expert advisor.” If you base the advice and information you give on how you wish things were, how you think things should be, or how you remember them being at one time, you may not be in an advisory position for very long.
In other words, do your best to be pragmatic and accurate when providing social advice. If you tell your son who has AS, “I’m sure you’ll find a girlfriend at school this year!” when in fact that outcome is by no means guaranteed, you aren’t helping. If you use words like “always,” “must,” or “definitely” when they are not warranted, you may find that you are no longer trusted.
Those last two paragraphs are truly vital. One of the most important things any parent, teacher, or other advisor can contribute is honesty, and the ability to admit when he or she cannot be sure about an outcome. If you model and express the reality that the social world is not based on a finite set of surefire rules, if you admit it when you are unsure or make a mistake, you are providing a great service and very real support. I suspect this is also true when helping out non-Asperger’s children, friends, relatives, and students. Don’t be afraid to be truthful and “get real” when it counts.
Jennifer McIlwee Myers delivered AANE’s 2008 Matthew Dandurand Memorial Fund lecture. She was (finally!) diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 36. Nowadays she travels speaking on many issues related to the autism spectrum, and loves to gather and share as much information on ASDs as she possibly can. She has contributed articles and sections to a number of books and magazines about ASD, including a chapter on dating and relationships in the Future Horizons book Asperger’s and Girls.