Home > Autism Spectrum Pages > Autistic Features > Understanding Social Situations
It is hard for some people with autism to understand how to behave in various social situations. They may, for example, not realize that you can, or in some contexts should, hug a friend, but not a stranger. Another possible difficulty is understanding general commands of social behavior as they apply in various situations. For example, someone may tell me to speak politely, but I do not understand what exactly this means in a variety of situations, and there is no standard phrase that you can memorize that communicates politeness. Thanking others for their help is part of being polite, but so is calling older people by their last name - sometimes.
In my mind, the way I understand social situations is very logical. You can see it like a long list of formulas that go like this: "If X, then Y, else Z," in which X is the situation in which I find myself, Y is the desired behavior, and Z is the consequence if I don't exhibit that behavior. For example, if someone helps you, say "Thank you", because else they will feel that you are not happy with their help. Unfortunately, these are basic social rules that I have by now - age 21 - mostly memorized. I still tend to get in trouble with more subtle nuances in what behavior is expected of me in social situations.
Another problem, that I've noticed more recently, is with consequences of behavior. IN particular, I have a problem with uncertain but possible consequences. For example, a few months ago, my privileges were withdrawn because I'd had a meltdown and had stood still while in the middle of the road. The privilege withdrawal was, at least to my knowledge, not meant as aversive, but because my doctor was worried that if this happened again when I was out alone, I could be hit by a car. It was even put in my nursing files (a nurse had been with me durign the incident) that I did this out of protest. ON the other hand, I had not been thinking about the possibility of a car hitting me, had not meant to (almost) get hit by a car and, as far as I could tell, there were no cars about to hit me. A few months later, I was out with a nurse again and she went onto that same road with me and walked there, claiming that this road wasn't a busy road anyway. It's hard to have any different rule for this situationt han: "I can't stand or walk in ht emiddle of the road, even if there are no cars, because it will cost me my privileges. That is, unless a nurse is with me and says I can go onto the road." Now how would that transform into a concept that I can take with me into a situation where there are neither nurses nor privileges? Another, somewhat similar issue is with behavior being inappropriate just because it's inappropriate. For example, I used to have an urge of kicking agains tmy wardrobe, and I ha dno problem understanding why it would be inappropriate to do on the ward: my wardrobe might be damaged and other patients would be hearing me. But then, I can't do it when I'm home either - where my wardrobe will not be damaged and no-one will hear me. Of course, you might wonder why I make things unnecessarily complicated when "You just can't kick against your wardrobe" would be a pretty simple rule to memorize - and I indeed would never kick against my wardrobe just because I didn't know why not -, but I'm just making clear that consequences cannot always explain why a behavior is or is not expected.
What tends to help me, is creating something similar to Social Stories for myself. Social Stories were invented by Carol Gray to help autistic children learn social skills. They are little tales that explain how you're supposed to behave in various situations, and what the effect of your behavior will be on others. A Social Story consists of four parts:
If you want to write a Social Story for an autistic relative, it is important that you be specific in what behavior you want from the person. Also, please state what you do want the person to do, not what behavior you don't want. This is a very important rule for me - I absolutely cannot deal with statements like "You shouldn't speak loudly", because what should I do instead? Another recommendation would be that you shouldn't over-generalize. "You can't scream" may be an applicable rule in many situations and seems easy to memorize for an autistic person, but be prepared to be corrected by the autistic person in your care if you yourself happen to scream for a reason that you consider socially acceptable, if you've taught that person that screaming is bad. After all, autistics are often very rigid about the rules they've been taught.