Growing up, one of my biggest challenges was making and keeping friends. I lived in constant fear that if I attempted to reach out to someone, they would immediate judge me for my differences and cast me out. I got to a point where I couldn’t stand my suffocating loneliness and decided to talk to others, despite my paralyzing fear of being rejected. I figured out years later that not only is this assumption not fair to me and my social growth, it’s also unfair to the person I want to reach out to. You see, by worrying that they will judge me, I am, to some degree, judging them. I am unfairly unassuming that they are some cold, unapproachable person without giving them a chance to prove me wrong. So I decided that my tenure as a social outcast was over. Over the years, there was much trial and error(mostly error) on my part, but as an incredibly observant individual, I picked up on some tactics that seemed to work. I still use these today, because I’m constantly forming new bonds with the most incredible people.
1. Expand Your Interests
My mom always told me that the more interests I have, the more interesting I’ll become. I still don’t think I realize how true this is, but when I look back at the times I had explosive social growth, I notice a pattern. When I tried something new or expanded my horizons in any way, new people appeared in my life, people who I never would have met had I not stepped out of my comfort zone. Doing this terrified me, but looking back on these situations, I am so grateful I gave them a shot.
In my junior year of high school, I somewhat reluctantly joined the Tulsa Rowing Club, a small rowing team located in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember trembling uncontrollably as I stepped out of my mom’s car in the parking lot in front of the boathouse, every bit of me screaming, “Get back in that car and get out of here!” If I had followed through with that panicked thought and dove back into my mom’s car, my life would be drastically different today and I would be missing out on knowing some seriously cool people.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Get out there and meet people! For someone with Asperger’s, it is all the more necessary to “transcend your niche,” so to speak, and try new things. It is going to be uncomfortable, even scary, at first, but think of it this way: What parts of your life will IMPROVE if you stick it out and do something that scares you? What do you have to GAIN from this? I know that for me, my desire to have friends was so strong that I joined that rowing team even though it was the scariest thing in the world.
And you want to know the cool part? I ended up loving rowing for that team. I had more friends than I’d ever had in my life, and I finally felt part of something. To me, that was the most rewarding thing in the world.
Get out there and do something fun and new. I promise it will be worth it.
2. Take Interest In Others
This may be the most difficult thing for someone with Asperger’s to even attempt, but it is absolutely necessary. Limited interests get in the way of asking others about themselves, but it is a skill that can be developed and must be developed.
Whenever I meet someone new, I pay attention to the flow of the conversation, and when the timing works, I ask things like, “How is your day going?” or “What are your interests?” If you ask something along those lines, it shows the other person you are invested in them with both your time and attention. They’ll open up to you, and often, a bond will form.
If you find yourself steering the conversation toward your niche, or fixation, be aware you are doing it and be prepared to change the subject at any time. Read the other person’s body language and look for eye contact. If they are interested, their eyes will lock with yours and they’ll often smile. If they are growing bored of the topic, they’ll fidget or avert their gaze. When you see this happen, redirect the conversation or you will lose their interest.
3. Install Your Filter
This skill is so incredibly vital to social success. People with Asperger’s often let things slip that should never be said to another person, but most of the time, it is not intentional at all. We lack the ability to make distinction between what is socially appropriate to say and what is not.
I struggled with this quite a bit up until very recently, and I still slip up occasionally. Now, to prevent myself from saying offensive things to people, I count to three in my head and ask myself, “How would I feel if someone said this to me? Would I like being told this?” If the answer is no, I keep silent and say something else.
If you need to, slip a voice recorder into your pocket and have it record while you’re having a conversation. Play it back to yourself later and really analyze what you are saying and if it is a good thing to say. If you are not comfortable doing that, use my method and implement the “Mirroring” technique I described above. If you put it into context with yourself and how you would feel if someone was saying those things to you, it’ll give you a better idea of how to improve.
I believe, with all of my heart, that every person with Asperger’s can have an amazing social network and can gain an understanding of themselves and love themselves for all that they are. Once you learn to love yourself, it’s so much easier for others to love you back.