Dorms, parties, cute girls, hot guys, roommates, new friends—let’s face it, college life is, in large part, about the social scene.
Finally, you’ll be able to come and go as you please. Your parents won’t be there reminding you to study, brush your teeth, eat your vegetables, etc. And you won’t have a curfew. Moreover, college is about finding yourself and your independence.
It sounds exciting, but for most freshmen it can also be a little overwhelming. You have to get yourself to classes and exams on time, do your own laundry, pay your own bills, balance your own checkbook, find your own meals and determine your own schedule. However, it’s not just the daily routine that worries most freshmen. Although some won’t admit it, most freshmen are also worried about fitting in, being cool and making friends. For students with Asperger’s Syndrome, the desire to be part of the group and connect with others, while at the same time making the grade academically, is equally important—but often more challenging.
If you have Asperger’s, this is probably not news to you. You’ve had to work hard to learn social skills, and, guess what? It’s all paid off! You’re in college now. It’s your chance to make a fresh start. People in college are often more socially accepting than high school students. So, take a deep breath and get ready for the next challenge and the time of your life!
Strategies for Making Good Connections at College
Most students with Asperger’s Syndrome find the college social scene to be both exciting and challenging. If unprepared for the social situations that lie ahead, students with Asperger’s may find their college social lives very unfulfilling. At first you may feel isolated and overwhelmed. You may be tempted to run into your dorm room, slam the door, and shut it all out. But there are strategies you can follow to find your path through the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the college social scene.
Below, I describe three sets of strategies for making “Good Connections” at college. Following these strategies will help you adjust to college social life.
#1: Strategies for Living with Roommates
Many freshmen come to college never having had to share a room with anyone—never mind sharing one with a complete stranger! You and your roommate(s) may sleep at different hours, have different grooming habits, and enjoy different music and interests. Maybe you will turn out to be best friends and maybe you won’t. Either way, what really matters is respect and consideration. You are both going to have to make some compromises, and that involves open communication.
So, how does someone with Asperger’s discuss and resolve issues with his or her roommate? First, by getting off your “soapbox,” listening and really taking seriously the roommate’s concerns. (I.e., don’t lecture your roommate about your needs or the roommate’s mistakes.) And second, by learning how to express your own needs in a polite manner.
Practice active listening: Active listening is a very important skill for people with Asperger’s to learn and implement. What is active listening? Active listening involves hearing what the other person has said and then repeating it back to them to make sure you understood correctly. An example would be:
Roommate: “It bothers me when you start calling people late at night.”
You: “Sorry, I didn’t know it bothers you when I call people late at night.” Then you can add, “I’ll try to get my calls done earlier or I’ll leave the room.”
Once you and your roommate have gotten to know each other better, and it feels safe enough, you may want to mention that you have Asperger’s, and explain to your roommate what that means. Knowing about AS may help your roommate understand you a little better, so that the two of you can communicate better and get along better.
What’s important to your roommate is important, AND what’s important to you is important too. You will have to balance paying attention to both your needs and the needs of your roommate and that involves open communication. You will need to express your needs directly but politely to your roommate.
Learn to use “I Statements” to avoid putting other people on the defensive. “I Statements” work because they focus on your feelings about a situation, without placing blame. “I Statements” are made up of three parts:
- When you ________
- I feel ______
- because ________
An example would be:
- When you interrupted me
- I felt angry
- because I felt that you did not want to listen to me.
Using “I Statements” is a polite way to express your needs. They help you keep the peace with by helping your roommate understand where you are coming from—without feeling blamed.
#2: Strategies for Developing a Social Life at College
There are many opportunities to meet friends in college. So how do you make sure that you are a part of the group?
One of the first places to connect with peers is in your dormitory. Most college living is co-ed, so you very well may share a suite or hall with members of the opposite sex. This is a learning experience in and of itself! And of course, you will also meet potential friends in your classes.
Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome honestly struggle with understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings and this can make them seem socially peculiar—even rude—in the eyes of people who do not understand their disability. That is why these tips for learning social skills, including reading body language and how to facilitate a good conversation, are important.
Don’t Isolate Yourself: Yes, it will be important to find ways to get alone time and get a break from all the college stimulation. However, it is also important that you keep yourself socially involved so that you do not become isolated and possibly depressed.
Conversation starters: One of the best ways to make friends is to show an interest in other people. Listen to them when they talk. Ask them one or two questions about themselves—and listen to the answers! Do not over-focus on what you want to say, or go off on a tirade expressing your opinions. That is not what communicating is all about. Listen without interrupting; really hear what the other person is saying. Look at them and make eye contact (without staring). Smile if they are telling a funny story. And then, when it is time respond, they will listen to you too. As a friendship grows, you’ll have plenty of time to talk about what interests you.
Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome do not understand sarcasm or joking behavior. If someone says something to you that you don’t understand, observe how other people are reacting to the comment. You may want to ask the speaker, “Is that a joke?”
People with Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty understanding body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice—things that are very important for understanding what people mean to say. Therefore, it is very important they work at learning how to read others’ non-verbal cues. For example, how do you know when it is time to close a conversation? Try to watch for signals that others may need a break. It may be time to say a friendly good-bye if the person you are talking to is:
- Looking at his or her watch.
- Starting to look away more frequently.
- Turning his or her body away from you.
Join a club or religious group: There are many clubs, interest groups, and religious groups on most college campus. Joining one can put you in touch with others who share like interests. This is a great way to make friends who you have a lot in common with. These groups also plan social activities and can help you feel a sense of community at school. When you meet new people at your club, remember to use the social skills we talked about earlier.
Find a “coach”: It will be invaluable to find a social “coach,” someone who you feel understands you, and who can help you process social situations as they arise. This may be someone who works at the student health services office, a teacher/professor, or another student you trust. When an upsetting or confusing situation comes up, you can go to your coach and brain storm ideas together. If you can’t find someone on campus, maybe there is a friend or family member you can email. It’s best to locate someone on campus as they will tend to know the school culture.
Privacy and Personal Space: You probably don’t like others touching your personal items without your permission. Your roommate might feel just as strongly, and be just as upset if you touch or use his/her personal items without asking. It is always a good idea to ask before using something that belongs to someone else.
The same is true with “personal space,” our private rooms and the space around our bodies. Just as we all like people to respect our personal belongings, we also like people to respect our personal space. It is a good idea to check and see if it is okay to enter someone else’s personal space:
- Remember to knock before entering someone’s room.
- Americans feel most comfortable when others stand at least 18 inches away during conversation.
Similarly, people may feel protective of their time. Some people may be interested in a casual friendship, while others may be open to talking or meeting more often. People can become annoyed if you call them or try to get together with them more often than they feel interested in doing. If someone is not returning your calls, or accepting your invitations, or makes excuses to cut short a conversation, they may not be interested in pursuing a close friendship with you. You may need to look elsewhere for friends. If you continue to pursue this person, he or she may interpret it as harassment. A good social coach can help you read the cues and figure out how best to respond. Good relationships take time. There is no need to rush. If you are a good friend and are respectful of the privacy of others, your friendships will grow.
#3 Strategies for Handling the Party Scene: Drugs, Alcohol, and Sex
With its unstructured setting, college is a playground. Without close adult supervision, too many students adopt the party lifestyle. Drugs and alcohol are available in abundance, and a lot of students use them—but not everyone. You don’t have to—and you shouldn’t. Getting drunk or high takes away social barriers—meaning, people are drunk or high are more inclined to say and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t dare. This is of particular concern to a person with Asperger’s, who sometimes doesn’t understand social barriers to begin with. If you confuse the picture further by using drugs or alcohol, you can embarrass yourself or get yourself into some dangerous situations (drinking and driving, sexual assault, etc.)
Drug or alcohol use is not a pre-requisite for making friends. Instead, put your time and energy into developing healthy friendships with people in your dorm, in your classes, and in your clubs. Make choices and decisions to act in ways that will increase—not lessen—your own self-respect.
The Power of “No”: Assert yourself. You can claim the power to say “No” in any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, or that you know is not good for you. If someone offers you drugs or alcohol, just say “No thanks.”
Stop and Think before you act: You may be tempted to try drugs or drinking. However, you need to be able to stop and think, “Will this be good for me? Will this help me feel good about myself? What are the risks?” Maintain your self-respect.
What if someone is pressuring you to have sex? You might feel tempted to say yes, either because you feel “turned on” (sexually excited), or you feel flattered, or you want to please the other person. However, these are not good reasons to have sex. Wait until you have a girlfriend or boyfriend who you have known for a while, and feel really comfortable with. If you both have shown by your actions that you respect and care about each other, then you can decide if you both feel ready for the intimacy and emotional issues that adult sexuality involves. This is also an excellent time to consult your social coach for advice about intimate relationships, safe sex, and birth control.
If you have the courage to do what is right for you, your true friends will respect you. Anyone who doesn’t accept your decision is not a good friend.
In conclusion, learning college social skills can be a challenge, but the rewards are endless! So get going and say, “hello” to an exciting chapter of your life.
Dr. Stephen Rothenberg is a Boston-area psychologist whose personal mission of helping people make more meaningful connections with others in their lives. He is the founder of “Good Connections,” a friendship and dating and service especially for people with Asperger’s Syndrome and learning disabilities. For more information, please call him at 888-618-6878 or visit www.socialskills.org.