The Horrors of Small Talk When you have Autism Spectrum Disorder

I started a new Pilates class the other day. One of the women in the class introduced herself and started ‘small talk’ and I was immediately thrown into that familiar, confused state. From my anthropological standpoint, I can absolutely see the value of ‘small talk’ but from a personal point of view I just don’t understand or enjoy it and my responses range from inappropriate jokes to complete silence. I have to pull out my mental notebook with my list of neurotypical responses – gleaned from over 40 years worth of copying what other women do in social situations – which just about enables me to pass myself off as ‘normal.’

Some situations are easier than others. I’m fine on a one-to-one basis with someone with whom I have a deep connection. I’m quite happy teaching a group of students and enjoy attending anything which is organised, from a therapy workshop to a cookery class. Anything which has a structure and clearly defined roles is good with me. What really gets me are the informal, unstructured interactions, particularly in groups. Family parties? I can handle them for about an hour and then I’m so bored, drained and anxious that my go-to since being a teenager is copious amounts of alcohol

Another issue, which affects many people on the autism spectrum, is sensory overload. As a child, I would become stressed, confused and drained very quickly if there was loud music, strong lights and simply too many people. Although I’m less sensitive to this type of sensory stimulation now, too many people, conversations and activities can all bring up those familiar feelings of feeling sick quite rapidly. 

Before my autism diagnosis, I assumed I had Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). I certainly do suffer some social anxiety – and for many people with autism the two conditions can exist hand in hand – but the reason for my social anxiety is a difficulty in knowing what to do and say, problems reading facial expressions, a lack of understanding of the ‘point’ of many interactions and a lack of structure. 

Many people with autism can become isolated due to the difficulties involved in making friends, distinguishing friends from enemies, and acting in socially expected ways. People on the spectrum – in contrast to common perception – often have a need for social connections but it can be very difficult going about initiating and maintaining those connections. 

As an adult who still struggles – and having dealt with clients in similar situations – here are some strategies which can help:
Recognise that your social issues are not due (primarily) to social anxiety. 
Although, like me, you may have developed social anxiety it is important to recognise the impact that being on the autism spectrum has had on your social interactions and to treat this appropriately. Whilst the treatments for social anxiety may focus more on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and exploring the roots as to what’s happened in your past to make you socially anxious, other treatment options may be more suitable when you have a diagnosis of autism. 

Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs. Given the difficulties people with autism may face socially, alcohol or drugs can seem like an obvious choice to diminish the effects of sensory overload, temporarily dampen down anxiety and help conversation, of one type or another, flow. Previously it has been thought that people with autism were less likely to become addicted to these types of substances, but some recent studies have challenged this (1). 

Don’t overdo it. It’s important to be honest with yourself and others and recognise that some social situations are so difficult for you that you should be allowed to say ‘no’. This is vastly different from becoming socially isolated and, in fact, when you start to identify the activities which make you feel socially good from those which completely drain you, you’ll have the energy to do more of the things which energise and support you. I now know the types of events which are going to make me feel ill for up to a day or two afterwards and limit my interaction accordingly. I used to think I was being temperamental. Now I know I’m looking after myself.

Have strategies in place. When you know that you’re going to be in a situation that is likely to be difficult for you socially, have a strategy in place to minimize its impact. For instance, can you pre-agree with your partner exactly what time you will leave? Or could you arrange to pop out for a quick walk or even get some shopping to have a break? Will arriving earlier and having time to settle in or arranging a hotel room for the night help alleviate your stress levels?  

Recharge. It’s very important when you’ve been drained socially and/ or have experienced sensory overload that you give yourself time to recharge. If you need some time alone to do hobbies, read a book or whatever helps you to reconnect, make sure you do it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is self-indulgent behaviour – it’s essential to your mental and physical wellbeing.

Learn the meaning of social interactions. If understanding the point of social interactions and being able to respond to subtle communication dues doesn’t come naturally to you, social events may always be a bit tough. Copying what other people do and say can help to ‘pass’ but it’s more useful to make an attempt to understand what the point is of things like small talk and lengthy family get-togethers. Why don’t other people want to leave at 6.00 pm on the dot even though that was the suggested finish time? Making an effort to understand what is going on can help you to respond in a deeper way than simply repeating things in a rote manner. 

Acceptance. Most importantly, it’s important to accept who you are and what you need. When you accept that some things are more difficult for you socially because you are on the autism spectrum, you can begin to put into place all the strategies outlined above to support your needs. You can build a social life, which allows the time and space for you to take care of yourself and ensure a balance between alone and social time which is right for you.