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.

Everything Changed For Me This Year (Autism Awareness Day)

Autism Awareness Day always has a theme. Officially, the UN sets the theme but different organisations also choose their own themes; for example, I know that autistica has chosen the theme of anxiety. The official theme (the one set by the UN) is ‘Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World.’ I don’t feel that there’s really anything useful I can add to that conversation, given that I’ve never been well enough to have what society would consider a proper job and that the career path I’m following doesn’t really involve traditional workplaces. So, instead, I thought I’d write about something different, something that has been a really big deal for me this year.

For so long, I just felt like I was broken. And I felt like I was broken in so many places. I couldn’t understand it. Getting the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis helped but there were still all these cracks, all of these problems that no one could make sense of. I had mental health problems, I had chronic fatigue, I had chronic pain, and so on. Nobody could figure out the whole picture and at worst, I was just abandoned by medical professionals, told that my case was just too complicated. That was the most painful part, I think; these people, many of whom it was their job to help with situations like this, were willing to let me continue to struggle rather than put in the effort and help me. It made me feel like I wasn’t worth helping, the toxic best friend of feeling like I was broken.

But in the last few months, with the help of several new medical professionals and some more diagnostic work, the pieces have all slotted into place and, I think, we might finally have the whole picture. So this is the timeline, beginning in 2016 (I might add dates later but I don’t have them all to hand right now).

(I’ve covered some of this before but I think it’s necessary if we’re talking about said whole picture.)

  • I was diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety by one psychiatrist.
  • I was diagnosed with Depression, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) by my long term psychiatrist.
  • I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and had the BPD diagnosis confirmed at the local Neurobehavioral Unit.
  • My therapist explained that my mental health issues, particularly my BPD, may have stemmed from the continued invalidation of my ASD.
  • A few years passed.
  • After a discussion with my psychiatrist, my mental health related diagnoses were updated, changing to Treatment Resistant Depression (TRD), Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and BPD.
  • I was (re-)diagnosed with OCD after further sessions with my psychiatrist.
  • My GP diagnosed me with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) when we could find no obvious cause for Chronic Fatigue I’ve been dealing with since I was twelve.
  • A couple of years passed.
  • I started to develop Chronic Pain that got dramatically worse over a period of several months.
  • I was referred to a specialist who diagnosed me with Hypermobility (apparently individuals with Hypermobility are seven times more likely to be autistic), which led to a diagnosis of Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), explaining my Chronic Fatigue and Chronic Pain as well as a number of other ‘smaller’ symptoms that, due to the bigger problems, had been ignored. This, as far as I can tell, makes the ME/CFS diagnosis void.
  • I was also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), many of the symptoms overlapping with my ASD, during the same period.

And suddenly all of the pieces started to click together:

THE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES (TRD, GAD, OCD, AND BPD) AND ADHD ARE, AT LEAST IN PART, CONNECTED TO MY ASD.

MY ASD AND HYPERMOBILITY ARE LINKED.

THE HYPERMOBILITY LED TO A DIAGNOSIS OF hEDS, WHICH EXPLAINS MY CHRONIC FATIGUE, CHRONIC PAIN, AND OTHER PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS.

Discovering that it’s all connected has been a really helpful and comforting revelation. I’m starting to see each condition as a star in one big constellation and that’s a hell of a lot better than feeling inexplicably broken in multiple places. I still have to deal with everything that comes with each of these conditions, of course, but knowing that they’re all part of the same picture does make my health less draining to think about and manage. It all makes more sense. And I am a person that needs things to make sense. So this is all a really big deal.

My Mental Health Journey Began With Stephen Fry

I’m not sure how I’ve written roughly two hundred blog posts and never told this story but I recently found the letters containing all the details and so I thought I’d finally tell it because it was a really important moment in my life.

I’d struggled with what obviously turned out to be Autism and the mental health issues that developed due to that going undiagnosed for years but I’d always been dismissed, told that “every teenager struggles.” But if that was true, I couldn’t figure out why everyone seemed to be coping so much better than me. It was awful and I just felt like I was failing and wrong and always slightly out of sync with everyone else. But if this was normal, then I was going to have to figure out how to live with it. Because apparently everyone else had.

As a teenager, I went to the Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, Wales a handful of times. It’s a really cool arts festival and I’ve heard (and met) some of my favourite authors there over the years. But my most significant memory is from when I heard Stephen Fry speaking about mental health. What he said changed my life. He talked about his experience with depressive episodes and suicidal ideation and equated the ups and downs of mental health to the weather:

“I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather. Here are some obvious things about the weather: It’s real. You can’t change it by wishing it away. If it’s dark and rainy, it really is dark and rainy, and you can’t alter it. It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row. BUT it will be sunny one day. It isn’t under one’s control when the sun comes out, but come out it will. One day. It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are all are real as the weather – AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault. BUT they will pass: really they will. In the same way that one really has to accept the weather, one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes, ‘Today is a really crap day,’ is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. ‘Hey-ho, it’s raining inside; it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow, and when it does I shall take full advantage.'”

(This isn’t the exact quote from the event but this is a metaphor he’s used multiple times and is very similar to what he said that day.)

Everything he was talking about made absolute sense to me; for the first time, someone was saying ‘this isn’t normal,’ ‘this isn’t something you should have to learn to live with,’ ‘this is something that can be helped.’ For the first time in my life, I felt like someone understood what I was going through. Some of the feelings and experiences he described were so similar to mine that it took my breath away. I walked out of the tent in a daze and as soon as we had a bit of privacy, I told my Mum everything.

After that, we went to see my GP and started steadily exploring the options that the NHS provided. Things really deteriorated and the search became much more urgent after I failed an exam (I talk about that in this post and this post) and we were forced to go private to get me the help I needed as fast as possible, before it got worse. If you’ve read the posts about me getting my various diagnoses, you’ll know that, after several years of talking to lots of different people, I ended up being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder.

And on and off during that time, I thought about that Stephen Fry talk and what he’d said and how everything might’ve turned out differently if not for that moment. So, not long after I got my diagnoses, I wrote to him. I wanted to thank him for his part in my journey. I didn’t know if he’d get it but I wanted to try anyway.

To my utter surprise, he not only got it but a few months later, I got a response. I don’t feel comfortable sharing it because he wrote it only for me and to circulate it feels like a breach of trust. I don’t know if that’s how he’d feel but that’s how it feels to me. But he was warm and kind and generous with his words and I’m so, so grateful. I’ve often returned to it in times of difficulty and it’s helped me pick myself up again and again. This letter is a deeply cherished possession, a gift I never in a million years thought I’d receive.