social skills nondisabled people need to learn

"Attention seeking behaviors"

Autistic people and other people with cognitive disabilities are often interpreted as doing things for attention, whether or not that explanation is plausible.

For example:

  • Alice is autistic. She flaps her hands.
  • Hand flapping is part of Alice’s body language. She moves her hands to express a large range of thoughts and feelings, just like some people move their facial muscles to express a broad range of thoughts and feelings
  • Alice also sometimes flaps her hands to calm down when she is overloaded
  • Bernice is a behaviorist. She is distressed about the fact that Alice flaps her hands.
  • Whenever Alice flaps her hands, Bernice stares at her, and pays intense attention to the fact that she is flapping her hands
  • Bernice notices that every time Alice flaps her hands, Bernice pays attention to her
  • Bernice concludes that her attention is reinforcing Alice’s flapping behavior
  • Bernice concludes that Alice’s hand flapping is an attention-seeking behavior
  • Bernice puts Alice on a behavior plan based on ignoring her whenever she flaps her hands

Behaviorists and others make this mistake a lot. They very, very frequently assume that the fact that they are paying attention to something means that it is being done to get their attention. It doesn’t. It just means they’re paying attention.

Starting at someone whenever they do something doesn’t mean that they’re doing it because they like being stared at. It just means that you’re staring at them.

tl;dr Stop calling everything attention seeking behavior. The fact that you’re paying attention to something doesn’t mean that someone is doing it because they want your attention. Not everything a person who has a developmental disability does is about you.

How to Talk to Anyone (for at least a few minutes)

So there’s this post going around tumblr  that says,

you know those people that can literally carry on a conversation with anyone are amazing like wow how do you do that

And while I know this is one of these tumblr rhetorical questions, I bet a lot of people would like to know the answer.

I travel a lot and spend a lot of my time talking to people at hostels, people I’ve never met before and might not ever meet again. I find that people are generally at their best when they’re talking about something that they love. The trick is to find out what they love and get them to start talking about it.

Look at small talk as the time to cast about for something to actually talk about. Most people drop hints, either consciously or unconsciously, about what they *actually* want to talk about. You should listen carefully so that you can take advantage of an opportunity.

For example: Imagine you say to someone, “Gosh, this weather is just out of control. I didn’t know it even could snow this much!” And the person responds, “I know! I can’t wait for the spring to come so that my flowers will grow.” You can answer, “Oh, do you garden?” If the person really does garden, s/he will probably like to talk about it.

Or maybe the person responds to the same prompt, “It’s awful! I had to dig the car out for hours before I could run out for an ingredient I needed.” You can reply, “Oh, do you like to cook?” Even if they don’t like to cook, the story about why they had to run out for an ingredient might be interesting. The point is, you get away from talking about the weather and get on to talking about ANYTHING else.

Even if they don’t give you that specific of an opening, you can still use a similar principle. If you say, “It’s so cold out! I can’t believe it!” And the person says, “I know! I can’t wait for spring.” You can respond, “Do you have plans to do anything special once the weather warms up?”

I know these examples are really cheesy, but I’m just trying to get across the idea that it’s often easy (or at least, easier) to get people talking as long as you ask them about things that they like. So if you’re stuck in a situation where you have to socialize with people you don’t know well, that’s one way to do it. The drawbacks are that you might end up in a conversation that doesn’t excite you all that much, but as I said, people are often at their best when they talk about what they love, so you might enjoy the conversation even if it’s not about something that *you* love. And it’s likely that later on the person will remember you as someone who was nice and easy to talk to.

Hope that helps!

A way people with disabilities are often wrongly percieved as angry

Sometimes disabled people are wrong perceived as angry or hostile when they move like disabled people. It works something like this:

  • The most efficient way to do things is often not the socially accepted way to do things
  • People with disabilities often have to do things in an efficient way to be able to do them
  • In order to be perceived as calm and polite, people are often expected to move in a slow, careful way without making sudden or loud motions
  • That’s easy for most people without disabilities, and can be difficult or impossible for people with disabilities
  • Sometimes people with disabilities don’t have the motor coordination or strength to move in expected ways. Sometimes pain or illness makes them too exhausted to have the energy to move in expected ways. Sometimes, they have to move efficiently to be able to move at all.
  • People with disabilities who have to move in loud, sudden, forceful, or jerky ways are often wrongfully perceived as expressing anger, frustration, or aggression.
  • When people make loud, jerky, or sudden motions, they tend to be perceived as rude, angry, or aggressive
  • People with disabilities don’t always have the coordination to make the movements in expected ways
  • Sometimes, they have to be efficient in order to do the thing.
  • This often gets perceived as angry when it isn’t
  • This can lead to people with disabilities who are just trying to live their lives being perceived as hostile and excluded
  • When a person with a disability is moving in a jerky, sudden, or loud way, it’s important to consider the possibility that it’s disability-related rather than angry

Some concrete examples:

Dropping things:

  • In most social contexts, it’s socially expected that people who need things to be on the ground put them there without making a sudden noise

  • This generally means using your arms to slowly lower the thing to the ground
  • People with disabilities often do not have the strength or motor coordination needed to lower things this way
  • Sometimes, people who can’t rely on muscles to lower things need to drop them and rely on gravity
  • (And some people have to rely on gravity some of the time, eg: when they’re tired, at the end of a long day, when they’re in a particularly draining environment, when they’ve already had to lift and drop the thing several times that day.)
  • Gravity only goes one speed, and dropped objects tend to make noise
  • Dropping a heavy object rather than lowering it slowly is usually perceived as a sign of anger (and for people without disabilities, it’s generally intended as one).
  • People with disabilities who drop things are often not intending it as an expression of anger.
  • Often, they drop things because they need them to be on the ground and have no other realistic way of getting them there.
  • If a person with a disability is dropping heavy things rather than lowering them, it’s important not to automatically assume that they are doing this out of a show of emotions
  • Consider seriously the possibility that they’re dropping things because they need to lower them, and due to disability are not able to do so in the socially expected way.

Another example: Plugging things in:

  • The socially expected way to plug things in is to slowly push the plug into the outlet using a steady pressure
  • That requires a particular kind of strength and muscle control
  • Some people with disabilities can’t do that
  • Some people with disabilities have to rely on momentum.
  • Relying on momentum involves one sudden forceful movement. 
  • That can look like punching, and can be perceived as excessive force
  • Most people without disabilities only plug things in with that kind of force when they are angry or frustrated
  • People with disabilities often plug things in that way because it’s the only way they can do it
  • If a person with a disability uses a lot of force to plug things in, don’t assume it’s a display of emotion.
  • Consider seriously the possibility that they’re doing it that way because that’s how their body works

In general:

  • Some socially expected movements are complicated and difficult
  • Sometimes people with disabilities can’t do it in the polite way
  • Sometimes, we have to do it in a way that’s more efficient
  • That’s often perceived as rude, inconsiderate, or threatening, when it’s really just limited ability to move in expected ways
  • No amount of social skills training or knowledge of socially expected behavior will make it physically possible to move in all expected ways
  • This can result in people with disabilities being perceived as angry or displaying rage when all they’re doing is moving
  • It’s important not to automatically assume that people with disabilities who move oddly are doing it to display anger. It might just be that that’s the only reasonable way for them to do something.
  • If you understand this, you’ll be much more able to relate to people with disabilities and include people
  • (People with disabilities, like everyone else, sometimes display anger and frustration in physical ways. But they are routinely wrongly perceived as doing so. It is possible, and important, to learn to tell the difference).

tl;dr People with disabilities are often perceived as displaying rage or aggression when they’re just moving. This is because socially expected ways of moving are often very inefficient in ways that aren’t too difficult for most nondisabled people, but can be difficult or impossible for people with disabilities. It’s important to learn to tell the difference between people with disabilities moving efficiently and people with disabilities displaying anger. Scroll up for details and examples.

Replying to "Noticing a Consent Problem"

Offering multiple concrete choices can be a good idea if you notice that the person you’re talking to says ‘yes’ OR 'no’ more than usual.

My sister seems to have the opposite issue that you’re describing here; she replies with “no” to a lot of statements, even if I’m suggesting something she usually likes (like going to a movie). And similar to another reader’s experience, open-ended questions can get overwhelming for her. If I ask, “If you don’t want to go to the movies, what do you want to do this afternoon?” she usually answers, “I don’t know”. But if I say, “Would you rather spend time alone?” she’ll say, “No”. At this point I used to walk away, and I would tell her where to find me when she figured out what she wanted to do. Both of us would feel lonely after this happened.

But a few years ago I changed my strategy. The best response from me is the same as for the consent problem you described. If I offer my sister three or four choices of activities, she can figure out what she wants a lot better. And we can go through options or variations until she can communicate what she actually wants to do. We have a lot more fun when we spend time together now!

For people who like to hug

I’m a hugger, and I regularly come across people who don’t like hugging, or don’t like hugging someone they just met, or any of a multitude of reasons that mean ‘they don’t want to hug me right now’. 

What I do is instead of just hugging people (including people I know) I just sort of hold my arms up and ask “Hug?” (I need to figure out how to ask in a way that 'no’ is an option…) 

Sometimes people hug me, sometimes they don’t. One time my friend had hurt her upper arm and could only hug specific ways.

If someone doesn’t want to hug, I don’t want them to feel left out, so I offer a high-five. 
If they don’t want a high-five, I offer a fist bump. 
One of my friends is really uncomfortable with touching people, so instead we just touch pointer finger fingertips. 
If someone just plain doesn’t want to touch, then I wave at them. 

This has seemed to work for me so far. 

- Stephani-d