How I Improved My Social Skills

Since I wasn’t diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder until I was 20, that meant two decades of struggling and struggling particularly when it came to social skills. But despite finding socialising awkward and stressful, no one ever thought much of it. At most, I was labelled extremely shy. The idea that I was autistic simply did not exist – I didn’t behave according to the stereotype so it was just never considered. But still I struggled. So I thought I’d share how I coped with that and what strategies I employed to make socialising easier. Hopefully they’ll be helpful to some of you. Having said this, these are very specific to my experience, the areas in which I function better, and the areas I find more difficult so they won’t necessarily apply to everyone. But I thought I’d share them just in case, just in case one person finds one example helpful.


As I said, I found social skills very difficult to make sense of as a child and teenager. I found it difficult to process and participate in conversations, for example, making friendships and school relationships potential minefields. So, to compensate, I paid great attention to how other people behaved and interacted, analysing and cataloguing it until I had somewhat of an internal database to draw from. Having said that, I don’t think it’s as simple as just copying other people, at least not for everybody; for me, I think the fact that I’ve always done a lot of writing has had a significant impact on my speaking abilities: it taught me a lot about language, about the flow of words, etc. In a sense, it was like practicing social interaction by myself.

There is definitely an element of ‘masking’ (artificially ‘performing’ social behaviour that is deemed to be more ‘neurotypical’ or hiding behaviour that might be viewed as socially unacceptable) when around people but that’s something I want to talk about in a separate, more in depth post. This is not a post that will teach you to mask (something that can be helpful in certain circumstances but become detrimental over extended periods of time); it’s a post containing some tips and tricks that, over the years, I’ve found to be helpful in make socialising less stressful.

Diagnosed as a teenager and older, it can be very difficult to find support and strategies as most of the information is dedicated to young autistic children and the parents of autistic children. So, for those of us diagnosed later, we’re forced to learn how to cope in social situations by ourselves. These are some of the things I personally did to improve my social skills…

  • Eye contact – I’m still not very good at eye contact because it makes me feel so vulnerable and overwhelmed, like the other person can see what’s going on behind my eyes or like I’ll be able to see all that’s going on behind theirs. So mostly I rely on short bursts before looking at something ‘relevant’: my drink if we’re at a cafe or the ground if we’re walking, for example. But if I really do need to make eye contact with someone for longer than feels comfortable, I use the strategy of looking at a particular feature on their face so it still looks like I’m looking at them. I want to make that connection that eye contact creates (and I want that for the other person too) but sometimes it’s just too overwhelming and this seems to be the next best option.
  • Making conversation with people – I find meeting new people really hard: they don’t know anything about me and I don’t know anything about them. How do you understand someone when you don’t know what makes them who they are? But then I also feel kind of suffocated by all of that information. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty overwhelming situation. So, as a teenager, I started developing a script for starting conversations, a way of breaking the ice that proved to work well. I tell the person I want to talk to something I like about what they’re wearing or doing (if they’re drawing, for example) and ask them a question about it. As human beings, we like to talk about things that matter to us or that we’re passionate about and most of the time, this method sparks the beginning of a conversation, which makes continued interaction easier as you now have a positive foundation.
  • Official conversations with unknown people – I find conversations with, for example, people in authority positions pretty challenging so I’ll often spend time beforehand, running through possible different branches of the conversation, ordering my thoughts in areas that are likely to come up, and generally making sure I’m clear about the information I want to get across and/or the questions I want to ask. That preparation makes the conversations easier and less overwhelming and ultimately lead to a more positive outcome. I (or my Mum) have, in the past, contacted whoever it is that I need to speak with to find out what sort of information is likely to come up if I’m unsure so that I can prepare and most have willingly laid out how the appointment or meeting etc will likely take place.
  • Allow yourself to take a backseat in conversations – It’s perfectly okay to not be an active participant in social interactions all of the time; it’s okay to be a part of conversations without being (one of) the main contributors. If the topic being discussed is confusing or emotionally charged or you’re feeling drained, there’s no rule that says you have to engage. It’s perfectly fine to sit out for a bit of the conversation and rejoin when you feel comfortable or like you have something to offer.
  • Disclose your Autism if you feel comfortable doing so – I can only speak from my experience but I’ve found that people are a lot more likely to overlook my social stumbles or support me through social interactions if they understand the basis of them, as well as making sure they’re clear about what they’re saying and the emotions behind it. I’ve also found it can strengthen friendships to share about your Autism but this is obviously a judgement call and a very personal one at that.
  • Let people in – Similar to the above point, sharing your way or the ways you’ve developed to communicate can be really important and create a really strong connection within a friendship. So, if you’ve developed your own way of describing things (the way I talk about production in music and how a song can have too much of a particular colour, for example), explain it to them if they ask what you’re talking about. Sharing things like this can add something special to a friendship, or any kind of relationship.

I spent the majority of my life stumbling awkwardly through social interactions but once I discovered that it was due to being autistic, I felt a lot less self conscious about it because I understood where it was coming from. And while I can’t and don’t intend to speak for anyone but myself, I’ve had very few negative reactions to disclosing my ASD in social situations. The majority of people are, at most, curious and want to understand; many people barely react. But the fact that many of the people I talk to know that I struggle socially and may mess up (and sometimes fall spectacularly on my face) is comforting. I don’t have to worry about what they’ll think of me. I’m still me, whether I’m articulate or flat on my face.

Parenting A Young Adult With Autism Spectrum Disorder: My Mum Interviews Me

When my Mum was answering my questions in the previous post, she was inspired and suggested she interview me in return, with similar questions. I was up for that so here goes: this is the mother of a young adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder interviewing her daughter with said Autism Spectrum Disorder…


Briefly, what has it been like for you to get a late diagnosis?

In some ways, it was such a relief. I’d been struggling for such a long time and not having a name or label caused me a lot of anxiety and made it difficult to get any support. So in that sense, it was great. It obviously hasn’t changed the fact that I struggle but I have more confidence – it had been going on for so long and had become so complex that I did worry I was making it up and actually causing my problems – and the support allows me to work on the areas I struggle with, managing them, decreasing the intensity, and creating solutions.

But I don’t want to imply that it’s been a hundred percent straightforward because it hasn’t. For twenty years, I operated under the assumption and expectations (from myself and others) that I was neurotypical and would go on to have a neurotypical life, meeting the usual milestones. I’d always held myself to a high standard and that wasn’t really a problem until I was finishing school: learning was something I was comfortable with and excelled at and my social issues were just assumed to be shyness. But then life started to get harder, with bigger and more serious demands, and I struggled more and more but still held myself to the same high standard. I still do. It’s very deeply ingrained. So it’s really, really hard to accept that my life is never going to look like what I expected or like the lives of my peers.

Having discussed how I’ve been your advocate at various times and in various situations, where did that need come from? How has that made you feel both pre and post diagnosis? Are there particular times where it has felt more necessary than others?

I’ve definitely lost count of how many appointments we had with various people where I would explain what I was going through and how much I was struggling only to be told things like, “All teenagers struggle,” and “Well, you’re showered and dressed so you’re clearly coping.” There’s so much I could say about those experiences alone but after a while, those appointments made me so anxious that I just couldn’t talk. At all. I needed someone who could tell my story for me when I wasn’t able to and since we had (and do) talk about everything, you were always able to give all of the information and spare me at least some of the anxiety involved in those appointments. Pre-diagnosis, you were the only one a hundred percent behind me and I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done without that. Best case scenario, I don’t think I would’ve gotten my diagnoses and the worst case scenario doesn’t bear thinking about. If I hadn’t had you in my corner, researching and reaching out and pushing for answers, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten this far. Post-diagnosis and in the time since, I think I’ve grown in confidence and have needed it less but there are still times that I’ve, at the very least, needed back up. There are many situations that I do now feel able to manage myself but in times of great stress or anxiety, having someone on my side, someone ready to step up and take over when I get overwhelmed or it all becomes too much, is just so important in moving life forward. I like to think that I get a bit further every time before needing you to take over but I am also aware that I may never be able to completely handle these kinds of situations when under great stress.

Having answered this question from my perspective, what about you? What would you would consider to be the positives and negatives of having Autism Spectrum Disorder?

I think I’ll start with the negatives first. That’s not a particularly optimistic start but the negatives do, at this point in time, feel more overwhelming and painful. The high levels of anxiety and overwhelming intensity of my emotions can make it really difficult to function day-to-day, plus both are incredibly exhausting. All of that is really hard. I also often feel very different from – and behind – my peers, which can feel extremely distressing. Not really in a competitive sense but because I really want to experience all the things they get to experience and often take for granted, knowing that I may never get to have those experiences.

Onto the positive things… Admittedly this perspective is harder because I am in a period of feeling that my ASD takes more from me than it gives back. Hopefully one day I won’t feel this way. But for now, positives… Although the strength of my emotions can be overwhelming, I definitely prefer it to the idea of ambivalence or apathy. And while the negative emotions are awful, the positive ones are like nothing else in life. I imagine it’s like going from grainy black and white to high definition colour: when I’m happy or passionate or excited, I feel like I’m glowing brighter than the sun. I don’t know if that makes sense but it’s how it feels. I can also get completely immersed myself in something: it doesn’t even feel like I’m focussing because I don’t feel like I’m in control, but I think people would call it deep focus. I can work on something for hours and fours. For example, I once started working on a song at eight in the morning and when I next looked up, it was dark and my hands were shaking because I hadn’t eaten for over fourteen hours. I hadn’t even noticed the time passing. And I guess another positive is how seriously I take things – my relationships, my commitments, my words, and so on. Nothing is flippant to me. I mean, I can be funny and silly but I take life seriously. Everything that I invest myself in matters so deeply to me and I never want to give anything less than my best. All of these things do have negative side effects if they go too far – which they often do – but overall, I consider them to be positives.

How do you think things would’ve been different if your ASD had been recognised when you were younger?

I mean, who knows? I don’t think we can ever really know the answers to questions like these, although I’m fascinated by the ways life might’ve turned out had this happened or that not happened. I’m not sure, to be honest; there would obviously be so many differences. But the biggest one that sticks out for me is that I wouldn’t feel so stuck between a neurotypical world and an autistic world, especially identity wise. I often feel like I have two sides to myself constantly pushing against one another and like I’m trying to find a place in the world where I don’t just have to be one part of myself, where I can be all of myself. I mean, I know everyone’s trying to find their place in the world and that most people don’t often get to be their whole selves but I feel very conscious of the two worlds that I don’t quite fit into and end up feeling like I don’t fit anywhere. So I think the obvious thing for me would be that I think my identity wouldn’t feel so fractured because growing up knowing I was autistic would’ve meant that my personality and my identity evolved with that already present, rather than trying to fit everything together later on, if that makes sense.

How do you feel about taking various medications and going to different forms of therapy for years now? How do you think those have affected you?

It’s an ongoing, exhausting part of my life and I do sometimes wonder whether any of it has made any difference. But then I think about it properly and despite all the awful medication experiences, there have been some really great ones: I wouldn’t have made it through my BA without the Phenelzine, wouldn’t have made it this far through my MA without it. And sometimes it feels like therapy only uncovers more problems but then I remember how many empowering conversations I’ve had with my therapist, how many strategies I’ve learned to help me manage not only my struggles but my life in general. There have been more ups and downs than I can count but I honestly don’t know where I’d be without them.

What do you think the hardest part of living with ASD is? 

This is a really difficult question to answer. Part of me wants to answer with ‘living with ASD’ but that’s not helpful. There are so many things I could say: the anxiety; the fatigue; feeling like I blend in enough to fit in casually but feel too different to fit in on a deeper level; my limited ability to be independent; sensory sensitivities… The list goes on. But I think, overall, the hardest part is feeling like the life I want to have is never going to be possible for me and I don’t mean in the being-a-musician-is-a-risky-career-path way; I mean that, as an autistic person, I will not be able to do the things required of me to do music. It’s a terrifying prospect because I cannot imagine my life without music at the forefront. There seems no point to living otherwise. I know that sounds overdramatic but given the intense emotions I experience as part of being autistic, that is just how I feel. To an overwhelming degree.

How do you feel your life as an autistic person is different to those of your neurotypical peers?

I can absolutely recognise that we do go through a lot of the same things, albeit often in different ways and according to different time frames. But then there are definitely significant differences between my life and the lives of most of the neurotypical people around me. I feel like my life is smaller, limited. I’m sensitive to food, loud noise, large groups of people, and I struggle with low energy levels, which all make it difficult to keep up socially, so I often feel like I’m on the outside. I also find myself constantly comparing my level of independence to that of my friends: so many of them – if not all of them – have moved out (even if they’ve moved home during the pandemic), lived with friends or alone, have jobs, operate as independent adults. And I’m just not able to do that. Every day, I have to ration my energy down to the smallest sliver and it’s just not physically possible for me to do any of those things with the amount of energy I have to allocate out to all the tasks required in a day. And that’s as things are now, living at home, let alone if I was living alone and taking care of myself without any help. These things are some really big issues for me and I do find that I isolate myself sometimes so that I’m not being constantly reminded of them.

Are your relationships with your neurotypical friends different to your relationships with your autistic friends?

I think there probably are – to a certain degree, at least – but for the most part, I think it’s not that different to how we relate to each different social group we interact in. We connect with different people for different reasons so while the underlying connection to my university friends is music, the underlying connection to my autistic friends is based on our shared experiences as autistic women. But all of those connections are strengthened by other things, other commonalities and time spent together. So while I initially connected to my autistic friends because we are all autistic – and those similar emotions and experiences and struggles are an important part of our relationship because we can connect to and support each other in a very specific way – our friendship has grown a lot from there, just as every friendship grows.

How do you feel parents can be most supportive to a young adult with ASD?

I have a couple of things I’d like to include here, things that have been invaluable to me over the years:

  • Really listen to what your child, teenager, or young adult is saying and I mean really listen and take seriously what they’re saying.
  • Support them in the areas they struggle with as best you can without judgement or criticism. Chances are they don’t understand why they find it so hard either. You can do this by encouraging them to be honest about what they’re feeling, researching the particular issue (noise sensitivity, for example), and speaking to specialists. There are also therapies you can then pursue if you both/all feel it’s necessary or would be helpful.
  • It’s good to have someone to push you to help you work through your struggles, particularly someone who loves you and only wants to see you succeed, but it’s also important as the parent to recognise when the child, teenager, or young adult is reaching their limits and that they need to take a break. Respect those limits and celebrate each victory.
  • Advocate for them when necessary, with no judgement as to why they need you to in that moment.

So there we go. If you guys have any other questions for me or my Mum about living with and managing my ASD and mental health problems, please get in contact and we can always do another of these posts. I hope it was helpful!

When Results Day Isn’t What You Hoped It Would Be

Trigger warning: This post contains details of an emotional breakdown and mentions of self harm.

So results day is coming up. The timeframe is much as it ever was: school grades will be released as planned: A Level results will be released on the 13th August and GCSE results will be released on the 20th August. Degree results tend to depend on the specific university. Despite all of the upheaval over the last several months and the changes made to the expected academic year, many people still took exams of some kind, worked hard on projects or coursework, and pushed themselves to attain the highest marks they could so, regardless of the unusual circumstances, the anxiety around these days is no doubt mounting.

As I’m in the middle of my course, I’m not currently awaiting any grades. I completed my second module back in April and received my marks not long after. But every August (and to an extent, January, when some modules are assessed), I think of all those anxiously anticipating those numbers or letters that they’ve been working towards for months, that their lives have revolved around for so long (not a healthy mindset, mind you, but one that society has entrenched in us and one that I’d like to talk about further at a later date). I think of those young people and hope that, whatever grades they have received, they are coping in a positive and healthy way.

What with my GCSEs, some in Year 9 and some in Year 11, my AS Levels, my A Levels, all the results during my degree, and now my Masters, I’ve had many, many a results day. And the majority of them have been absolutely fine, if not better than fine. Some of them have been downright amazing. But I do have one very negative experience that I think is important to share because chance are, at some point or another, we will all have a bad results day that comes as a shock. So I want to tell this story and then share some advice for dealing with a similar situation…

It was a chilly morning in March 2013 and I was anxiously awaiting the release of the Autumn module results with my friends. The only course I’d had an exam in was Physics and although I’d found it difficult, I finished it feeling like I’d done okay. Having been absent for a lot of secondary school due to ongoing illness, I’d missed out on a lot of foundation material so I’d found the course difficult but during the most recent parent-teacher evening, my teacher told us (me and my Mum) that she had absolute confidence in my abilities and that I was on track for a high grade. So when I opened my results and saw the little printed ‘u,’ I was initially confused. Surely it was a mistake. I’d always gotten good grades and my teacher had said such positive things. I waited restlessly for the mark to be confirmed and when it was, it felt simultaneously like everything went still and like everything was crashing down around me. I made my escape and headed for the more secluded of the two toilet blocks – I felt like every emotion I was feeling was visible on my face and I had no idea how to talk about it or how to pretend that I was fine. I needed to be alone.

I was crying before I even made it into the toilet stall and I sat on the lid, sobbing so hard that my chest hurt. I was gasping for air but it was like my lungs had pinprick holes in them, the air rushing straight out again. Even to this day, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what I was feeling. It’s not especially subtle and sounds very dramatic but it felt like the world was ending. I felt like a failure and I felt like the only thing people would see when they looked at me was a failure. All I was was this ‘u.’ All I was was ‘unsatisfactory.’ I couldn’t move past that thought. Everything else disappeared.

I don’t know how long I sat in that cubicle, crying and self harming, before my friends tracked me down. I wanted to stay there and hide forever but somehow, I dragged myself up and walked out to face them. I still remember the shock on their faces; I still remember looking at myself in the mirror, my face a mess of thick, mascara stained tear tracks and my arms covered in scratches. I looked as bad as I felt.

One of my best friends – someone I still consider a good friend despite the fact that we don’t see each other as often as we used to – took control of the situation, taking me off campus to a coffee shop where she gently coaxed the story out of me over hot chocolate. We both had to go back for classes but she arranged for us to talk to a mutually beloved and admired teacher at the end of the day. I wasn’t convinced but I was operating on autopilot, drained of the will to protest. So after my lesson (a lesson in which I didn’t say a word), we went to see this teacher and in her typical fashion, kind but direct, she told me about some of her experiences and talked me through my options. Then I went home and didn’t return for over a week.

It’s worth noting that my mental health had been deteriorating exponentially over the previous year, so this happened at a time when I was completely unequipped to handle it and it was a catalyst for a lot of big decisions. I dropped out of the physics course, partly because I wasn’t mentally healthy enough to manage the number of courses I was taking and partly because I was so distressed by the experience that I felt completely incapable of going back into that classroom and continuing with the course. Just thinking about sitting in that room triggered anxiety too extreme to function. And I can admit now that there was some shame involved too: I couldn’t bear the thought of my teacher and my class looking at me and seeing a failure. So I dropped Physics, completed the rest of my courses, and started seeking professional help for what were now obvious mental health problems.

To this day, I still struggle to open exam results. I work extremely hard and then, when the results are released, I’m very careful to open them at a time when I feel emotionally equipped to handle whatever they’ll say and when I have the time to process the emotions that I’ll potentially experience. I’ve talked about this a lot with my therapist, in general terms, but then we talk about it every time new results loom. Not long ago, she referred to the experience as ‘a trauma’ and the relief of having it validated for the distress it caused and continues to cause was so overwhelming that I swear my heart stuttered in my chest. After having so many of my experiences (and the ongoing problems they caused) invalidated, it was a really emotional moment. That day had a massive effect on my mental health and my relationship with education and still triggers debilitating anxiety.

Not all results days are like this. In fact, most of them aren’t and I hope that you – you, reading this – never have to go through an experience like this one, but just in case you do, here are some of the things that I’ve learned about coping with difficult results…


IN THE MOMENT

  • Get yourself to a safe place – Dealing with difficult emotions is hard enough in itself but factors like crowds of people, lots of noise, and so on can make it even more difficult. Whether you need to be alone or with a friend, somewhere quiet or somewhere too noisy to let yourself dwell (momentarily is fine, indefinitely obviously isn’t healthy), being in a place where you feel free to express your emotions can only make it easier to cope with the torrent of emotion.
  • Give yourself time to process your emotions – I always find that, when something huge and unexpected happens in my life, my emotions completely overwhelm me and while I know what I’m feeling right then and there, it often changes as the intensity recedes. I try not to make any decisions until everything feels more stable; if I do, I usually end up regretting them. So let your emotions flow and evolve and eventually simplify. Once that happens, everything will be clearer.
  • Talk it through with someone – Talking to someone (someone you feel safe and un-judged with) about what you’re going through can you help you process the emotions and make sense of what’s causing them, whether it’s a fear of disappointing people, a fear of damaging your future, or a fear of failure in general. Or something completely different and personal to you. And then, when you’re ready, they can help you put it in perspective and decide what to do next.
  • If it feels helpful, compare with your peers – Whether this is a good idea can only be judged by you. Sometimes sharing can be a bonding experience; for example, if the exam or module was marked universally harshly, the shared emotions can help you deal with the situation. However, if you decide to compare your grades with your classmates, be careful about who you choose to talk to: some people may approach the problem with potentially invalidating positivity, some may have done worse and be sensitive about it, and so on. It’s not a straightforward choice and one that only you can make.

ONCE YOUR EMOTIONS HAVE SETTLED

  • Talk to your teacher(s) – Not only do your teachers know the system, they will also have seen and helped multiple people through experiences similar to yours. They will have useful advice and experience that they can share with you that will hopefully make it easier to decide on your next steps.
  • If you get feedback, assess areas to improve on – If your results come with feedback, read through it carefully and think carefully about how you can perform consistently in the areas you excel at and how you can improve in the areas you lost marks in. Having clear goals for your future work can improve not only your future performance but also help with negative feelings around your recent grades.
  • Think about whether you want to resit – Retaking exams can be a smart route to take because resits can give you extra time to learn the material and they can help you boost your overall grade. And if that overall grade affects your next steps, it may be possible to continue with that original plan, just a year later. However, resits eat up time, can distract you from whatever comes next – whether that’s working on new modules, new experiences in a gap year, etc – and challenge your mental health with added anxiety and pressure. Again, only you can make this choice but I recommend talking to multiple people with various viewpoints before making a final decision.
  • Consider getting extra help – Whether you’re starting a new module or resitting previous exams, support from a tutor or mentor might be helpful, both in your approach to learning and your overall grades. You might also find that you need some support with your mental health after upsetting results or in the face of moving forward in education so you may want to talk to your school’s counsellor or the pastoral care team or even your GP. It may also help to talk to a teacher, not specifically for mental health advice but for advice on who to talk to concerning this matter.

Despite the trauma of that day and the vivid images that come to mind whenever I recall it, there are three things that I actively choose to focus on:

  1. The absolute kindness of my friend – I don’t know how that day would’ve gone if my friend hadn’t come to find me, taken care of me, and taken me to talk to a teacher I trusted. While I wasn’t capable of properly acknowledging her help at the time, I am so grateful that she was there and that she looked after me in my most fragile state, nonjudgmental of my emotions, accepting of my self harming, and thinking only of how to help me. Whether we’re friends forever or our paths diverge, I will always remember and appreciate it.
  2. The words of my teacher – I so appreciate my teacher sharing her story with me and what she’d learned from it, even if I wasn’t really taking it all in at the time. I didn’t know it at the time but she helped. She really helped. I can’t remember her exact words (much of that day is a blur) but in essence, she said: there is always more than one path to get to where you want to be. I didn’t truly understand it at the time. I had a plan and I was going to follow it but looking back, she was right. I may not be literally where I wanted to be but I’m metaphorically where I wanted (and want) to be and more importantly, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be, if a little battle-scarred.
  3. It was the beginning of a very important journey – It was a horrible day with far reaching consequences but it was that day that really made us realise that something was very wrong and we needed to do something about it. Of course, if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that my mental health journey has been and continues to be full of twists and turns but if not for that day, who knows how much longer I would’ve struggled before something pushed us into action. I thought it was the end of everything but in fact, it was the start.

This post turned out to be a lot longer than I’d intended but I hope it has been somewhat helpful. I hope you remember that whether your results are good or bad, whatever you feel is valid. You have spent years working towards this moment and it’s natural and totally okay to have strong feelings about them. It would be odd if you didn’t. You’ve worked hard for this. So feel what you feel and do what you need to do to make sense of this big, messy experience that you’ve gone through. It will be okay – maybe not in the way you expect but it will be okay. I can promise you that.