Why Social Skills Training Does Not Help Autistic People

To explain why most general social skills training taught to autistic people is not helpful, I will show a simple example and give a critique. I will be referring this worksheet by Social Thinking which is public.

If after you read this post, you want more information about what you can do to help and understand autistic people, here are some ways to help.

An Example and Critique

This worksheet created by Social Thinking is titled “Social Behavior Mapping.”

There are two conditions in the worksheet. The top condition is titled Expected and the bottom row is Unexpected. Each condition has the same 4 columns listed from left to right:

1. Behavior(s) that are expected given the situation and people
2. How others might feel about the behavior(s)
3. How others act or react based on how they feel about the behavior(s)
4. How one might think or feel based on how they are treated by others

There’s also a tip box in the middle that says this but in small font:

Consider these when thinking how to list expected/unexpected behaviors:
1. What people say
2. People’s actions
3. What people do with their eyes or face
4. What people do with their body (hands/feet)

How to Spot Red Flags

  1. Does this center the neurotypical person’s actions and feelings? (yes = red flag)
  2. Does this center the autistic person’s feelings and needs? (no = red flag)
  3. Does this recognize and respect autistic people’s sensory sensitivities? (no = red flag)
  4. Does this center neurotypical body language as correct? (yes = red flag)
  5. Does the framework make an implicit assumption that autistic people can control other people’s feelings and behaviors? (yes = red flag)

If no one ever asks what your needs are, it’s easy to think they are not important, especially as a child. Remember, most of these social skills programs are for children and teens, though adult versions do exist. If I saw this chart when I was 10 years old, it would give me the message that my needs and my natural body language aren’t important or okay – and I already received that message by that time, even as an undiagnosed autistic kid.

There’s nothing about understanding oneself as an autistic person in this situation on that worksheet that I can see. It seems to be a roadmap for how to make non-autistic people comfortable. It’s an instruction manual for how to consciously and subconsciously mask.

What’s Missing From Most Social Skills Training

  1. Interoception and Alexithymia – Do I feel uncomfortable? What am I feeling?
  2. Sensory Recognition – Do I need sensory supports?
  3. Taking Action Based on Feelings – Do I need to leave the situation because I’m uncomfortable?
  4. Consent – Are the people around me listening to what I need and respecting my boundaries?
  5. Acceptance – Am I allowed to be myself around these people? Do I feel safe?

And here’s the main reason why “social skills training” makes no sense to me: There is no neurotypical formula for social interaction.

What Autistic People Need to Know:
Social Interactions Aren’t Math Problems

It is so easy for us as autistic people to think “Well, if I word it this way, then maybe they’ll listen more..” or “If I fake eye contact more then maybe I’ll be better received” or “If I just change my tone of voice a bit more then X will work out.” We exhaust ourselves with these thoughts. Even as an autistic adult I still get wrapped up in this from time to time. If I just tried harder, maybe I could control other people’s feelings and reactions to my autistic self.

Something I wish I was told a long time ago: It’s not possible to control other people’s feelings and outcomes of things. And it’s certainly not possible to do this as an autistic person interacting with neurotypical people. Everytime an interaction went even slightly poorly in my life I assumed it had to be my fault. Everything was my fault because clearly I just didn’t try hard enough. And I never even had “social skills training.” I just knew that how I existed was wrong based on my negative interactions with others.

What Non-Autistic People Need to Know

Autistic people don’t need any more help to make us feel bad about negative social interactions. We don’t need any more reason to blame ourselves or tell ourselves we’re the ones who were wrong. We don’t need any more reason to doubt our ability to communicate with neurotypical people. We don’t need any more reason to “go the extra mile” to accommodate neurotypical people. We do it everyday, every hour, every minute. We don’t need any more reason to blame ourselves at earlier and earlier ages, to think there’s “something wrong” with us or that we could have more friends if only we “tried harder.” We don’t need it.

If you’re worried that the autistic person in your life isn’t hanging out with their peers, ask them if they’re okay. Ask them if they’re good (some autistic people are fine being alone or with only having a few friends!). Ask them if they want to make friends, and if they want to do it on their terms, try to find other neurodivergent people to interact with. Telling them to get out of the house more, or get off the computer, or “go make friends” isn’t going to solve any of this. If they want to make more friends, ask them what they’re interested in and find other people who are interested in that thing.

We’re already told and shown everyday that who we are is difficult, too much, uptight, unfun, boring, or pedantic. We don’t need to be told that who we are needs to be packaged in a prettier bow to make friends.

We need to be told that there is space for us, a place we can feel safe, and people we can trust. It’s up to you to help us find that, and not give us “training” that will subliminally blame us for living in an unaccommodating world.

Why Social Skills Training Does Not Help Autistic People