Coexistence in the Land of the Neurotypical
I think the Pareto (80/20) Principle accurately applies to the social difficulties of autistic individuals. That is to say, 80% of my problems as an aspie stem from 20% of my total social deficits.
This speaks little of the frustration and effort involved in learning to approximate neurotypicals. There are no quick fixes, and I say “approximate” here to be especially clear that there is no becoming an NT, as you have hopefully accepted already.
But the upside is that it may be the case that our imagined Sisyphean struggle can be shortened substantially. I believe that the majority of what neurotypicals care about is achievable, even if there is a 20% we cannot reach. While autistic people generally assume that “cringey” or embarrassing behaviour is tantamount to why we are misjudged, I observe that the answer is almost diametrically opposed.
I learnt this witnessing a good friend of mine in university. His Asperger’s and ADHD indirectly resulted in his childhood bullying (similar to my Asperger’s and Bipolar Disorder). Nevertheless he became almost known overnight by most of the course. He was no circus freak — most of the course genuinely were his acquaintances, a few even friends. All this while demonstrably behaving in a socially naiive “cringey” manner.
How did he accomplish this seemingly miraculous feat? I will cut to the chase : friendliness, pure and simple. This enabled others to tolerate his strange mannerisms and social awkwardness.
I came to a similar conclusion later, though it took me far more time to process. Via hypomania as a teenager I had already realised the importance of confidence in smoothing neurotypical glares. However until I met my ex-girlfriend (also aspie), I still did not understand the reasoning behind any of the seemingly “meaningless” neurotypical speech quirks (e.g. “How was your day?”).
You Do Care
Many aspies make the assumption their emotions and intentions are understood sans vocalisation. This is most likely due to our poor Theory of Mind; we believe it is unnecessary to express our emotions, because we assume it is implicit to others. We also make the mistake of thinking of social contact as a robotic exchange of data — one which neurotypicals are bad at, due to their “useless” apologies and thanks.
You seem cold or you seemed cold I guarantee. You either focused heavily on social contact being mere information of interest, ignoring perhaps the root of your loneliness (emotional affirmation via speech). Or, you were taught not to express your inner thoughts by bullies and their ilk as I was. I call the former Type I the latter Type II.
Either way, neurotypicals, perhaps even fellow aspies, saw you as cold, “intense” or even a “jerk” and so on.
You may have internalised that this is not something you want to fix because you are fine without neurotypical “trivialities” [Type I]. Or, you may believe it is a hopeless endeavour and you are doomed to suffer social inadequacy, perhaps even friendlessness [Type II].
This article mainly targets [Type II] as that is more similar to my experience. The binary is arbitrary and more of a spectrum, but the major distinction I make is the desire for change and the suffering therein. Type I people can occasionally feel fine without social ability, and thus I do not advise these specific people continue with my ideas. Why?
Because It Will Hurt.
For Type II merely to live might entail suffering of a social nature, so the tradeoff — embarrassment for progress — may seem more worthwhile. But for rare individuals comfortable without dancing the neurotypical dance, it may be better to ignore this article.
You may already know that no excerpt can teach you social skills; social competence depends upon reflexes and subconscious judgement.
All I can do is share the means I used to gain what knowledge I have.
The quickest results will come with the most pain; the more you express your inner emotions, the quicker that mechanical tulpa of you vanishes from NT minds. But as you well know, the more this is done the more at risk you are of becoming disillusioned and isolating yourself.
Therefore, a stepwise approach is most congenial. The algorithm goes as follows: insert small displays of sympathy and friendliness to others into interactions day-by-day, and gradually increase both the frequency and intensity until clearly a faux pas has occurred. Thankfully because you attempted this gradually while trying to act warm and friendly, the faux pas was most likely either minor or forgiven immediately.
Why exacerbate the behaviour to the point of faux pas? Because there is no learning without mistakes.
A neurotypical-produced guide to autism might advise you on what not to do, but no social rule exists where you can read it. Your subconscious only learns workarounds for social behaviour via raw data. And even if you suffer from social anxiety, every (even minor) interaction builds your knowledge-base.
How does this relate to seeming more friendly and approachable? The answer is that the interactions you perform should relate to 3 main areas I highlight now: the powerful neurotypicalisms — “I’m sorry”, “How was your day?” and “I appreciate it”.
On their own all three are useful to insert, but I feel each is helpful to characterise a class of interactions one should aim for (gradually, of course).
Care for Negative Wellbeing
“I’m sorry” generalises to the class of interactions that let NTs know we care about their pain — from the pain we caused them to the pain we sympathise with. Experience inserting this into conversation let’s one begin to ask about others' problems, listen to them and show a genuine concern. This is tremendously important, because their sympathy will wane for your complaints if you cannot *verbally* show them that you care likewise.
Of the three this one will dispel quickest the illusion that you are a mean and cold person; it is the quickest way to show that you value the other person.
Care for Positive Wellbeing
“How are you doing?” extends similarly to a kind of Neurotypical Pleasure Protocol. In order to ensure your possible rants and verbosity are listened to by the other party, you must first show your interest in their successes and daily life.
At first, you will feel disgenuine asking such things. Later, you may start to find a person’s story, accomplishments and good luck interesting in themselves. But most of all do not be discouraged by this, because many neurotypicals alike find answers to this question uninteresting; it is more a mutual favour of feeling appreciated. And as your emotions should tell you, the apparent vapidity of neurotypical conversation is fulfilling whether or not it serves an intellectual purpose.
Later with this approach you will be able to include others in a group conversation and ask multiple successive questions related to what you know about a person’s life — signalling moreso that you feel a bond to them: that you have invested effort into the relationship.
Care for the Relationship
“I appreciate it” is an innocuous phrase in the context of thanking another for a favour. This however, is only the tip of the iceberg.
To thank someone is to acknowledge an exchange in which you ended off the better, for the most part. But extend this notion to sentimentality and this third pillar is by far the hardest to work with, but equally by far the most emotionally fulfilling.
You cannot simply tell someone “I appreciate this friendship” or worse, “I appreciate you”. The former is possible when inebriated perhaps, while the latter has romantic connotations you may not desire to express. Nevertheless, this sentiment is one you should aim to express via the subtle language of NTs. A shallow friendship will never require this but a deep one almost certainly will.
Why be so furtive? Because to explain the stage magic ruins the atmosphere of the show. To acquire a deep friendship one must spend much time with a person and gradually escalate mutual favours (reminder: do not do too much for others without recompense).
Along with favours (listening to others or buying coffee etc.) escalation of terms of endearment is important. As with favours, one must wait for the NT to reciprocate to escalate further — or run the risk of seeming clingy or creepy. Unlike favours however, terms of endearment are penalised far less upon speedy adoption.
Terms vary by many demographics, especially by gender norms. Talking to heterosexual guys I advance from “[name]” -> “dude” -> “man” -> “bro”. These terms are by no means monolithic and can be interchangeable, but “bro” is a signal from me about what I think our relationship closeness is.
Noun terms carry slightly more social risk. This is because it is not an intrarelationship signal — you are announcing to others that a person is your “mate” or “buddy” or even (very risky) “best friend”. They are still useful and low risk overall, however.
Do not use these terms disingenuously. They mean much both to you and your friend, and it will feel good for neither of you if you do. The purpose of all this is so that you advance how attached the NT is to you via acknowledgement that the relationship exists. The “script” when hinted at progresses the “plot”.
You Know Best
Take nothing I state here as gospel. Test everything and invent your own algorithms. The most important part is that you realise there is a meaning, even if only in your subconscious brain, to acting in these basic social manners. The only true way to mitigate some of the difficulties of ASD is to keep trying, and to do it slowly enough that you do not become disillusioned. You are deemed the most socially incompetent upon social withdrawal — not when you try.