Steve is at a conference in Miami this week. He was promoted this winter and will be doing more of this. Putting on a tie and schmoozing with people in the industry is not his strong suit, so I gave him some pointers for conversation starters.
When you’re at a business conference, you don’t want to talk too much about work, so what do you talk about? You look for commonalities and ask for advice. For example, you can say that we want to get a spot by a lake this year, but you don’t know where to go. Where would they suggest? If they have a kid in college, you can compare stories. You store little details about the person in a mental folder – their partner’s name, the age of their kids, some story they shared about their parent’s illness — and then ask about it. You ask questions, even if you don’t care about their answers, just to keep the conversation going.
When you’re married for a long time, each person develops their strong suits and lets the other person carry their weaknesses. Because Steve’s sense of direction is so good, he drives everywhere and I can’t get anywhere on my own anymore. And because I’m good at the chit-chat stuff, I’m the talker when we go to cocktail parties. But he’s at the conference on his own now, so he’s got to work on this skills that he never had to develop.
Ian’s last remaining autism challenge is social skills. He’s outgrown just about every other issue, but he still can’t maintain a conversation and is often inappropriate. Yesterday, when we were at the podiatrist to get new orthotics for his flat feet, he insisted on calling the doctor by his first name. He was having a little trouble with a bully the week before and he couldn’t understand why the kid was purposely saying things to annoy him.
So, Ian goes to social skills therapy on Wednesdays and will attend a social skills camp over the summer. He has an aide at school that makes sure that he’s saying the right things. Even with all this help, he has no friends and will probably struggle his whole life with interacting with other people.
And I’ve learned a ton by taking him to all this therapy over the years. One thing that I’ve learned is that a whole of neurotypical people suck at social skills, too. It’s one thing to say the wrong thing occasionally. We all do that. But lots of people struggle with more basic skills, like putting themselves in another person’s shoes to understand their motivations. Or knowing how to make another person more comfortable and relax to tell you their secrets. Lots of people don’t know how to do that.
I sometimes think about writing a book for non-autistic people about the art of chit-chat.