note: Social thinking is a concept and method of teaching social skills that
was created by Michelle Garcia Winner. I learned about the social thinking
method at the 2010 Autism Society of
This is the story of how, through highly unconventional means, a series of social situations occurred in my life that finally enabled me to understand the nature of social skills in ways formal instruction was unable to do so. Do not try to copy or do what I did—every autistic person is different, and we all need to take different paths in this world. I am sharing this not to tell everyone to do what I did, but rather, so show ways people with autism can be empowered to create their own unique social paths in society.
The following is a personal account of my own development of social thinking. This is not the full story—no essay can cover this whole story. However, it is a story 23 years in the making, and still changes every day.
Probably the most valuable lesson I have learned in my adventures in the social world is that I cannot follow a set of rules to achieve social success. A social mishap in one setting can give you social success in another. Many social curriculums often are focused on following social rules. And I was taught social skills based on a set of rules. However, my experience has made me conclude that rules can only take you so far. And no one set of social rules has given me success anywhere—if anything, achieving success for me has required a more important skill—knowing when to bend them when the social climate necessitates it.
Michelle Garcia-Winner’s concepts of social thinking, in my opinion, bridges the gap between rule following and socializing. It acknowledges that social rules are not set, and explains how social rules differ in different social contexts. And it also helped me understand why I built so many friendships based on “inappropriate” rules. Most of my friends do not base our interactions on a rulebook and routinely do things that are not entirely appropriate, but they are based on mutual agreements of accepted behaviors in our friendships. I am not exempt from social thinking because of my “rule-breaking” friendships because the “rule-breaking” that occurred wasn’t rule breaking in those friendships. And in fact, through those friendships I learned more about social skills than I did in any social group of social skills classes. As a child, I was taught social skills through role-playing and through sets of social rules that didn’t always seem to help me make friends. Today I realize what went wrong—I was being taught rules without being taught how to properly use them and when and where to use them and not to use them.
My personal saga into becoming “curiously social,” as Michelle calls it in her book, Socially Curious and Curiously Social, began when I was 18. My 18th year of life was a time of social change. I had been home schooled since the age of 11, my last day of full-time public school having been the completion of 5th grade.
When I turned eighteen, I did not have a literal “social life,” in that I did not have many friends, nor did I socialize informally with many people my own age. At the same time, however, I was an active member of my community, where I volunteered in child-care and at a small, local church. The people I volunteered with were my friends, and I was an accepted member of a small church of predominantly senior citizens and families with young children. Through my child-care work I became a known and respected member of my local community. And although I was taking one to two courses per semester at my high school, I did not build social ties with most of my classmates, preferring to just focus on my work.
But then, things started to change for me socially. During the winter and spring of 2007, I was invited to serve as a tutor for a local elementary school’s “homework club,” a club where students could go and get assistance with their homework. I became well respected in the club, especially amongst one of the club sponsors, a special education teacher at the school. She revealed to me that this homework club was actually a place where many students with special needs with to get assistance, and started sending me to those students to give them extra help. It also turned out that she had a daughter, Molly, who was a student at my local high school. Molly met me and instantly showed interest in being my friend. I was unaware, however, that she showed this interest, but realized that she had a clear interest in being my friend when she was one of the few people that said hello to me when I was at the high school during the one class I took each semester.
Another social development occurred at this time. Every Friday night since I was a child, my father and I went swimming with my siblings at the local YMCA. My father started to tell me about how a new girl had started lifeguarding—a girl from my high school. I came one day to meet her and she turned out to be another student from my high school—her name was Christine. Christine and I became fast friends, and I started to go to the pool just to talk to her. I forgot all about swimming with my dad. Instead, I spent time talking with her. Through her I learned something else that excited me—that Molly also worked as a lifeguard at the YMCA. I also learned that virtually all of the lifeguards at this time at the YMCA were girls, for reasons that no one could explain.
Christine and I talked about virtually everything together. I told her about the struggles I dealt with due to my autism and she told me about the struggles she had with her own life. She also started to tell me about the social rules of being a teenager, and being in high school. I soon learned that the rules for fitting in were far different than I expected, and she not only explained many rules to me but also the reasons for them. She also explained to me many variations of the rules based on what social role you played at my high school. Through her endless stories of social interactions, Christine revealed herself to have advanced social skills, and told me all about her ability to hang out with many different types of teens at our high school. Paradoxically, her social intelligence did not mach her academic skills--she was academically behind and failing most of her classes.
Meanwhile, Molly and I also established a friendship during the time Christine and I became friends. Our friendships emerged at the same time but were very different friendships. It was through these friendships that I finally understood, after years of being taught this but not really “getting it,” the concept of different levels of friendship. Although both friendships involved discussing intimate personal subjects, my friendship with Christine often involved social instruction whereas Molly and I rarely ever discussed social rules. In addition, Christine had emotional struggles and issues with her past that Molly did not have, whereas Molly was the daughter of immigrants, and we often talked about the differences between American culture and her ethnic upbringing, differences that Christine did not experience. Molly also explained to me that because of her ethnic upbringing, many of the subjects that we spoke about freely (but would be considered inappropriate subjects in many other social settings) did not make her uncomfortable, since she spoke about them freely growing up.
As these friendships emerged, Molly and Christine started to introduce me to other lifeguards at the YMCA—Allie, Julie, Sally F., Sally M., Carol, and Millie. These seven girls, five of whom were students at my local high school, became good friends with me. I would spend more and more time at the YMCA to visit them, and we had fun together, often hanging out as they rotated shifts. I soon learned that the lifeguards had created two distinct social “cliques”—and that although I became friends with girls from each clique, the girls themselves were not friends with the members of their opposing clique.
However, I was still respected by them and was even given an informal “initiation rite” to become an honorary member of one of the cliques. The girls also verbally taught me many of the social rules I needed to fit in with them during the course of our emerging friendships, as well as the concepts of social thinking, even though many of them were unaware of the term. Their lessons changed my life, and forever shattered my views of social skills.
The rules themselves were different and unique. And they also were unlike many rules I had learned before. What constituted appropriate versus inappropriate behavior was very different when fitting in with this social group. These rules were different than anything my parents told me to fit in, and anything any teachers told me to help fit in either. In fact, the girls made that very clear—they explained that no adult ever truly knows the social code of adolescents, since such a social code is purposely hidden from adults. One other thing that the girls also stressed was that if any teenager with autism were to learn the true social code of teenagers, they should learn from the teenagers themselves. Examples of such rules of the adolescent code, as they explained it, were:
Always call your friends on their cell phone and never their home phone unless you have permission from them first.
Girls are entitled to blow you off in order to hang out with her boyfriend, and that does not mean she doesn’t like you. It means that she wants private time with him, and likewise, don’t invite yourself to hang out with a girl and her boyfriend unless you are invited to.
Although they never used the term “hidden curriculum,” they routinely explained that these were unwritten rules that most adolescents knew.
The girls also explained to me that these social rules were not arbitrary—in fact, they made logical sense based on the comfort zones of the adolescents. The cell phone rule existed because many teenagers didn’t feel comfortable, as they explained, risking their parents knowing all of their friends by having someone call on the home phone. In addition, many teenagers wanted their social lives to be separate from their families, and felt that their cell phones gave them sufficient separation.
The boyfriend rule existed for another comfort reason—many girlfriends and boyfriends often want to spend a lot of time together alone. By explaining the reasons behind the social rules, they helped me realize that these social rules existed because they made people feel comfortable, and by understanding the reasons of these rules, I was far less likely to break them. And when my new friends taught me the reasons behind the rules, it was a lot easier for me to follow them and to properly use them in the correct social settings, since I understood them better.
After being given this social instruction, I returned to public high school after being granted 3 years to acquire a modified high school diploma. I had many social adventures during my high school career—both positive and negative. Some friendships that I formed lasted. Some came and went, and some friendships did end. But it was during this unique high school experience that I truly understood the concept of social thinking. My friends and I did not always do things that would be considered appropriate in a rulebook. But we still valued our friendships, and we based on them based on our mutual preferences for friendship.
There were some rules that were given to me specifically that did not apply to others. Although these girls were very accepting of me, they made sure that I was aware that I was still a guy, and that specific rules were going to be expected if I was going to join them. One thing that the girls made clear was that if I was to hang out with them, I would have to join them and follow some of their social expectations.
When I went back to high school, I soon realized that my friends would be mostly female. This was not entirely because of my inability to get along with other guys, or because of my social identity. Rather, it was because of the social rules that governed my high school—at my high school, it was expected that if you were autistic, or deviated in any way from your gender’s social expectations, your friends would mostly be of the opposite gender. Girls with autism would tend to have mostly guy friends as well at my school. It was also because unlike most of the other guys, I didn’t really have a lot of interest in “doing stuff” with girls or lying about it, and many guys would often pick on me for not pretending I was “doing stuff” with other girls.
As I made more female friends, one thing that the girls and I decided was that if I was going to join their groups, I would have to become one of the girls, and that we would all have to be comfortable discussing “girl talk” in my presence. Examples of such talk involved discussions of menstruation, leg-shaving dramas, boy problems, and bad hair days. I was entertained with countless stories about the struggles my female friends faced with other guys and their boyfriends. Every girl, and group of girls, differed in the level of comfort they had regarding what “girl talk” they would share in front of me, but usually some form of “girl talk” was discussed while I hung out with my female friends. It also went without saying that whenever I became friends with one girl, I was expected to build either friendships or become acquainted with the friends, male or female, in her social group. And while I built those friends, I could always rely my original friends from the YMCA to give me coaching and feedback regarding how to socially fit in with them.
What made these open conversations work was the mutual pact that I made with these girls, and made with virtually every girl—that we would never try to date each other or even become more than just close friends. I also made a vow to never date anyone while in high school so as not to cause any social drama between myself and my close female friends. Although I had many female friends, I never dated and never had a girlfriend while in high school. And no romantic tensions ever occurred between me and any of my female friends in my high school.
Listening to these stories helped me extensively socially, as these stories helped me understand the importance of social context—as I soon realized how much of what I heard was only appropriate to be discussed in this social context. They also helped me understand many social rules regarding friendships and relationships, since I soon assumed that, if the girls were telling me about behaviors that guys did that they didn’t like, I might as well make sure to not engage in those behaviors.
It also took me longer to understand the differences between this group of girls and other girls, and to realize that, for example, just because these girls and I were openly talking about “girl talk” didn’t mean that every girl I meant was comfortable discussing these subjects with a guy, or myself. Fortunately, many people have given me great advice on how to negotiate different conversation boundaries between friends. One thing I have learned—no boundaries in my social life are set, and what’s personal and private with one friend can be a subject that another friend and I can speak freely with. To this day, one of the hardest challenges in my life is knowing exactly what those boundaries are between different friends. I try to resolve this problem by mutually communicating with my friends what boundaries can work between us and when we are with other mutual friends, and I firmly believe and honesty and communication is the key to successful friendship, whatever that form of communication might be.
At the same time, this group of girls I befriended gave me a social identity. Some of my female friends revealed that they personally felt that girls should be allowed to speak freely about their girl problems in society, and disagreed with society’s taboos. This was especially true regarding menstruation, since many of my female friends had struggles coping with their periods. Some girls would tell me in great details their struggles, such as their inability and desire to use pads instead of tampons in a high school where girls often judged other girls negatively for not using tampons during their periods. Some of my other female friends, with and without disabilities, revealed to me that they felt miserable and endured a lot of pain before and/or during their periods, in some cases making them unable to attend school.
I formed a social alliance with some of these girls, who became many of my closest friends while I listened to their stories freely without judgment. In exchange for listening, these girls often protected me from bullies and accepted me for who I was, overlooking many of my autistic quirks. I felt that these girls were my true friends because they accepted me, and I was willing to help them with their problems. This became a big part of my social identity, resulting in being extremely well-liked by many girls at my high school, as well as being hated by, and sometimes scaring, other girls who disliked my openness and ability to listen and speak freely about girl problems, viewing it to be weird and inappropriate. I also developed strong feelings of empathy towards the girls who had major girl problems, and let them know that I was always willing to listen to their girl problems if they wanted to talk to me about them.
Here-in lay an interesting paradox—by engaging, and sometimes initiating this subject with girls, I could bond with them and build friendships, but this very same act would also cause some girls to get scared and uncomfortable. This was sometimes challenging for me, especially since the very same social act could either create a friendship, or drive someone away from me. While some of my female friends were extremely open with each other, I also tried to make sure that some of my other female friends, some of which had similar issues, did not know about how I was open about them with some of my friends, so they would not feel embarrassed or uncomfortable around me.
And not all friendships that I made lasted. I lost many friendships during my high school career as well. One thing I learned through those experiences is that everyone loses friends regardless of their social abilities or social skills. In fact, many of my friends lost friends during their high school careers as well, and sometimes my friends and I would mutually lose a friend together.
After graduation, I immediately developed social ties with an equal amount of people of both genders, and I always had male friends outside of the school environment. And the few guys I did become friends with in high school all had mostly female friends as well and had been given that fate due to the social rules of my high school. Those guys often valued my friendship, feeling happy they were not entirely alone in having mostly female friends. And these guys were probably the most respectful guys that attended my high school, who treated most people with kindness and respect.
During this experience, I also became empowered to create friendships that I valued, and to communicate the social deficits that I still do have to prevent social mishaps. For example, no amount of social training can change the fact that I still struggle with knowing if people are being polite to me or being honest, a limitation I will always have throughout my life. I now let people know that if I become their friends, and that they need to be willing to tell me if I have upset them, as I will never be socially perfect. When my friends are not able to tell me when I upset them out of politeness, my friendships with those people tend not to last.
I have left high school, and live in the outside world as a presenter on
autism. Some of the friendships I built in high school still last to this day.
I graduated with a modified diploma in 2010, at the age of 21. Today I travel
But I have yet to meet a person without autism that has not made social mistakes in their lives as well. To this day, friendships end in my life, and I have come to accept that as a part of life. And I also have a full social life with friends whom I relate to based on mutual agreements of what we both want in our friendships. And I also have a best friend, a person with autism I have known for 7 years. Mistakes still happen, and friendships don’t always last in my life, but as all my non-autistic friends keep reminding me, social mistakes can happen to anyone.