Today when a child is diagnosed with autism, he or she is given therapy. However, there are many of us who were diagnosed later in life who do not have access to the kinds of therapy and programs that are the norm for children diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism.
What can we as autistic adults do to help ourselves learn social skills, learn to read body language, learn to make eye contact, and learn how to make friends? There are a few things I’ve done and things that some of my friends have done that have proven to be helpful. Not every person will find every thing to be useful, but here are a few suggestions.
I took lessons in American Sign Language one summer. American Sign Language would probably not be difficult for an autistic person who is visually oriented. I am an auditory learner, so I didn’t do as well learning ASL as I did learning French in high school. ASL is a very visual language, and, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just signs. Deaf people who use ASL also rely on reading body language and facial expressions. Those are the “punctuation” of American Sign Language. So if you want to learn to read body language and facial expressions, ASL might help you do that. A caveat, however; if you use ASL you must make eye contact. It is very important when you are communicating with a Deaf person that you make eye contact with them.
For a few years I was a member of Toastmasters. Toastmasters is an international program that trains people in public speaking. Many people, whether they have autism or not, find public speaking to be intimidating. Toastmasters helps people get over the fear of public speaking by providing opportunities to speak first in the safe environment of a club meeting and providing gentle, supportive feedback on ways to improve. Toastmasters also teaches body language and gestures and encourages speakers to make eye contact with their audience. During my time in Toastmasters I worked through a manual on interpersonal communication that included a segment on making small talk, and I still use the things I learned from that manual.
I always wanted to take drama in high school, and while I was not able to do that I did take part in a few school plays. Acting can be beneficial to those of us on the autism spectrum. Acting is another area that can help a person learn how to use gestures and how to read body language, and it can also give a person skills that they can call on if they are uncertain of how to act in certain situations.
Martial arts training can be beneficial for some adults and children with autism. Martial arts teaches how to be aware of the body. I know personally that I have trouble perceiving where my body is in relation to the physical world around me; I spend too much time in my head. The technical term for this is proprioception, and my lack of this has meant that I walk into walls, trip over things that I do not see in time, and am just generally clumsy. Many of us on the autism spectrum have trouble with fine and gross motor skills, which can be helped with proper training in martial arts. Also, learning self-defence can come in handy for someone who is being bullied or threatened.
I don’t know if you can call making friends a skill, exactly, but it is something that many of us have trouble with. There aren’t any classes you can take that teach you how to make friends — at least, not that I’ve found. The same advice that works for people without autism can work for us: join things, take classes, and/or do volunteer work. It can be easier to make friends when you are working side-by-side with another person or people on a project, a job, a task, etc., whether it’s cleaning up a public park, learning about photography, singing in a choir or building model airplanes. There isn’t the pressure to be talking all the time, and you have something right there in front of you that you can talk about, so you don’t have to search for a safe topic of conversation.
Now, the one problem that can face many people is that many of the above suggestions cost money, and employment and earning an income can be tough for people with autism and Asperger’s, who are often unemployed or underemployed. I would encourage you to contact the local employment agencies in your area to find out what is available; some programs will even pay for their clients to take certain courses or programs if they can be proved to be beneficial. It is also worth asking people who run various programs if they have any provision for assisting people with disabilities and/or people with low incomes. (A lot of this can be done through e-mail and electronic communication if, like me, you suffer from anxiety when it comes to telephones and talking to strangers, or maybe you have a friend or family member who could help with this.) It might also be worth getting together with others and pooling your resources. You might be able to get a group discount.
Even if there is little to no therapy available for those of us diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s as adults, there are still beneficial programs and services that, even if they were not designed specifically with autism in mind, can still provide useful support for us. Take a look around in your community and see what’s out there. You might find something that will help you.