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What’s The Balance Between Learning Social Skills and Acceptance Of Asperger’s And NLD?

group of teens photoParents usually want Asperger’s or NLD children to learn social skills to get along with school peers, family and others. Many with Asperger’s feel that “neurotypicals” (those without Asperger’s) should accept them as they are for who they are and all they have to offer. On the other hand, some with Asperger’s lament that it seems others are born with a built in manual for social behavior; they feel lost, confused or overwhelmed without that manual.  

My approach isn’t that people should behave in a way that feels inauthentic, but rather that learning rules and social skills  to navigate the mainstream social world can be important tools to have. If one wants to make “neurotypical” (non-Asperger’s) friends, work on a team, be part of an activity group, or simply not get in trouble, it makes sense to have social tools and understanding. In particular, during these times when people who are different or behave differently are at risk of being seen as potentially dangerous or as sexually harassing, it can be vital that everyone understand certain limits for safety.

A simple example of a social tool is small talk. Most people with Asperger’s or NLD have trouble with small talk or see it as unnecessary, but a certain amount of small talk (greeting, making a comment or giving a compliment) serves as “social grease,” lubricating the social distance between people and giving the message that people are interested and connected.  “Hi, nice day” may seem superfluous, but it gives the other person a sense of comfort.

Picking up on at social cues, thinking about the big picture of social situations and anticipating outcomes are all helpful. I worked with a teenager who initially had been isolated, but with improved listening skills, a better understanding of social cues and tools for interacting,  he developed a group of friends. He came to see me, angry at his friends and having told them off. They had all ridden their bikes to the park. He recognized someone in another part of the park, went over there and was having an extended conversation. After about a half hour, his friends biked away to get something to eat; he was furious at being abandoned and “rejected.” As we talked about it, he realized that it was he who had left them in the first place, and he had given them no indication he’d be back. Thinking about the big picture and context of their behavior gave him a completely different perspective. He decided to apologize.

Understanding the overall context and situation is essential in school or work situations as well. If one wants to be on a yearbook or needs to work a team project, one needs to understand how a team functions and the roles of others on the team. Especially if the person with Asperger’s isn’t running the team (and even if she is), she needs to listen to others’ ideas. If she is outvoted, she has accept others’ (perhaps less creative) ideas. Listening and expressing interest in others’ ideas make it more likely that one’s own ideas will be listened to as well. Being aware to monitor one’s tendency to go on at length and checking in with listeners are also important to being included.

Missing unwritten social rules about behaviors such as staring, touching or following someone (or even behaviors such as unwanted overtures via texting or social media) can lead to serious problems such as accusations of harassment. Harassing behavior is defined as anything that makes someone feel threatened or uncomfortable, not the intent of the actor. This definition of harassment can be vague, because the same behavior might be OK coming from one person and uncomfortable coming from another. It’s hard to give a comprehensive list of don’ts, but certainly it’s possible to learn about needing permission or an invitation for touching, being physically close to someone or turning up where a person will be. Big picture thinking is vital. It’s important to understand that having a pre-existing friendship makes a difference; thinking about whether there’s a past history of mutual initiation of doing things together is one way of clarifying if friendly behavior is intended to be a friendship. Anticipating outcomes can prevent regrettable experiences.

Emotional control plays a critical role in using social skills in real time situations. Many with Asperger’s have had so much negative social experience that they have overwhelming social anxiety. It’s important to find ways to handle that anxiety before expecting to use new tools, whether one handles anxiety by breathing, taking a break, or other actions. (Having a practice of mediation helps.) It’s also important to find situations that will be incremental in social demand and allow for successful experiences. Sometimes the social expectations others might have are a greater leap than can be made. I’ve had parents ask me to have a child be “OK’ at a family party. That might be overwhelming both socially and in terms of the sensory overload. Having a plan to find a few people (Grandma and Grandpa, a few cousins) and get together outside of a crowded noisy room can be much more successful.  It helps if those around the person with Asperger’s understand and provide a more accepting social and sensory world.

Ideally the person with Asperger’s would have an understanding of “neurotypical” behavior and expectations, and that neurotypical people, whether as a family, school, friend or work group get to know, understand and accept that someone has Asperger’s. This is the need for balance. Those without Asperger’s could be less focused on some social expectations and more forgiving of social lapses. They can clearly communicate social boundries without judgment. Educating everyone about ASD is a critical need in our society. People with Asperger’s, NLD and other differences have a lot to offer as family, friends and co-workers. Neurodiversity is a fact, just as ethnic diversity is a fact. It’s important that neurodiversity be accepted as normal so that social expectations can be more flexible and nuanced and people with Asperger’s can have a balance of using social tools and being themselves socially.


Photo by Gareth1953 All Right Now

Photo by Beegee49

Photo by Gareth1953 All Right Now

Photo by Gareth1953 All Right Now

Photo by Gareth1953 All Right Now

What’s The Balance Between Learning Social Skills and Acceptance Of Asperger’s And NLD?

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

Psychologist since 1985, serving on CT ASD Advisory Council, Professional Board SmartkidswithLD

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APA Reference
Eckerd, M. (2019). What’s The Balance Between Learning Social Skills and Acceptance Of Asperger’s And NLD?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jan 2019
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