Autism Social Skills Strategy: How to win friends and influence people

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Working with people is a major topic that can fill up many books. Using a social skills strategy derived from the Social Accounting Model, let me start with a summary of the 3 stages in meeting people: introduction, relating and partnership. [Although this article only mentions school life, the same principles also apply in the workplace.]

The first step is the introduction. In a mainstream school, when we meet our classmates for the first time, they will be thinking: "Who is this person?" They will judge you by your behavior, speech and what you bring. This is instant and involuntary. As a famous social skills trainer often emphasized to his students that "attraction is not a choice". Faced with this situation, most people would suggest creating a good first impression. However, even if the autistic manages to pull off this feat, this impression will only last for a while. A Chinese idiom sums this up elegantly: "it is easy to meet, but difficult to live together" (相见容易,相处难).



For the socially handicapped, I believe that our effort is better spent on the second round: relating. This happens when the other classmates began to ask: "How is he meaningful to me?" In short, they are considering how to create a relationship with us. The classmates will leave this question open for around 1 to 3 weeks, which gives ample opportunities to turn around any negative first impressions and establish a positive relationship such as a "friend", "ally" or "helper". Translating into practical terms, let's say that our classmates have already labeled us as nerdy, odd and uncaring. However, if we demonstrate the ability to crack funny jokes and we are the only person who can copy the latest cool ringtones for our classmates, they may change their mind and re-label us as smart, cheerful, honest and helpful.

We can start building our alliance by offering a positive contribution to the social accounts, starting with adjacent classmates, then the whole class and then classmates of the same grade. The key is to make the maximum social contribution to the maximum number of classmates with the minimum amount of time, effort and resources on our part. A good strategy is to find a useful skill that we like (e.g computer troubleshooting), which we have a monopoly. [Note: The more people who can perform this skill as well or better than us, the weaker the social effect of this strategy.]

Theoretically, autistics see many different perspectives and have different skills, so they should be able to find their niche quite easily. Most autistics, however, tend to believe that since we go to school to study (or go to our office to work), hence, only our grades and knowledge (or work performance and job competency) are important. Parents and teachers must emphasize that the school is more of a training ground for entering the workplace, and grades are only part of the training. Thus another objective of going to school is to "score well" on "social skills", which we can assess by counting how many classmates are willing to volunteer to help the child on a minor problem or work with him on a team project.

After the relating stage, we enter into partnerships with our classmates where each of us have a well-defined role in a clique. Hence, someone may be the leader who makes group decisions, another person the coordinator who organizes events and yet another who knows the best bargains and shopping haunts. Neurotypical will begin to form cliques of 2 to 5 people at this stage. However, I would advise autistics to avoid joining any clique, since he will have to invest a huge amount of time and effort into sustaining such intimate relationships. [Your clique will expect you to go to parties, outings and participate in their favorite activities. If you decline to go about 3 times, they will kick you out. Your clique members also expect you to keep your special skills mostly within your clique, so you may not be able to help other people as much as you like.]

Hence, I suggest accumulating enough social credits with each clique to get an invitation to participate in their activities. When the leader of the clique invites you to join the clique, it means that he has accepted you and thinks that you are worthy of membership. I suggest not accepting the invitation. Decline two such requests in a row; he will get the message and stop asking. [If you change your mind, you can always ask to be invited again. However, if you do so, you must accept the next invitation or else you lose your final chance to join that clique.]

I believe that the best strategy for an autistic is to maintain a stance of friendly neutrality with every other clique in class, lubricated by useful offers of help and a friendly personality. In this way, you are assured of unanimous support among all the classmates, while not having to invest a lot of time and effort into sustaining intimate relationships. [Study the diplomatic policy of Singapore to see how this is done among nations.]

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My mother used to tell me concepts like "social usefulness" (利益关系, literally: "relationships of social benefits") and "social value" (利用价值, literally: "the value of other people for our exploitation"). She often tells me to make friends only with people of useful value and leave aside those who have no benefit or whom present liabilities. I used to think that she was Machiavellian in her understanding of the world and refused to accept her views. Yet, there is some truth in her words. If only she knew how to explain them to me in a way I could understand, I might have escaped years of social rejection in school.

This is how I might introduce my concepts to autistics who come my way: Neurotypicals are going to remain Neurotypical. Arrogant people are going to remain arrogant. Easily angered people are going to remain easily angered. Yet, even the most difficult person has friends who appreciate the hidden goodness within them. Your goal is to be an angel or a peacemaker - a person who can bring out the goodness in these people, and help them in their daily life. Your tool is the Social Accounting Strategies, summed up in the few steps below.

Firstly, you must ignore any negative impressions of each person for at least 2 weeks, including any gossip you hear from your new friends. In other words, you must give him or her the chance to be good to you. During this probation period, you are to assume that everything he or she does is of good intentions. You will assume that any bad behavior or words that cannot be explained in this manner are caused by misunderstandings or emotional distress, and so you will not hold the person responsible for it. You are to reciprocate good deeds and kind words in return.

Secondly, you are to make at least one contribution to each person within 1 week, starting with those who are closest to you (based on physical distance, rank or work function). You can give them a sweet, or help them with their homework. This contribution must be something tangible (i.e. that he or she can see, touch or taste).

Thirdly, you are going to find a niche for yourself in your social circles within 2 weeks. You must find at least one useful skill that you can give to the world around you, which will either make people happy or remove the problems that make people unhappy. You must then assist the people around you to make the most use of your skills.

Fourthly, you are to not going to worry about when you will get your favor back. However, you must avoid helping or giving too much to any one person. Your help should be fair and steady, so that people can see that you have no hidden agendas. Your help must also be sustainable: you are to avoid giving something that will cost you too much time, effort or resources.


Lastly, you must commit to the following 4 principles:

1) You are to fulfill any promise you made, unless it is renegotiated or it is just a ceremonial oath. You will never promise something that you are not sure of delivering. This means that if you promise to keep a secret, you must do so. Do this, and people will trust you with their lives.

2) You are not allowed to see anyone in a negative manner or as inferior to yourself. You may take sides about who is right or wrong, but you cannot blame a person for being wrong. You may say that a person is causing you problems, but you cannot blame the person for doing so. You are not to jump to conclusions and judge anyone before you are clear of the facts. Even then, you are not to assign blame. Let the blame fall on the circumstances and the environmental factors out of anyone's control. Most importantly of all, you are not to belittle or ridicule anyone. Do this, and you purify your thoughts, action and words. Without hatred and malice, you will have no enemies. As a wise Chinese sage once remarked, "Rather than wishing harm upon my enemies, is it not better to turn them into my friends?"

3) You may not take anything for granted, no matter your relationships with others or your own possessions. The food on your table is grown with hard work - accept it with gratitude. The money you receive is earned with sweat and tears - use it wisely. The help given to you comes from an angel, thank him or her. You seek to return what you receive, many times over. Do this, and people will be keen to help you whenever you have trouble.

4) You will not give trouble to other people. Start by discharging your responsibilities and obligations with honor. While we may not be keen to fulfill our obligations, it is not an excuse to do it poorly or sabotage it since it will create problems for many other people. Live a responsible life from the small aspects (e.g. no littering, clean up any mess you make) to big ones (e.g. no cheating or injuring other people). Do this, and people will follow your example and not make trouble for you.

I name the strategy above as "the wise angel's way". An autistic has to become an angel; there is no way around that. Deception is difficult, social manipulation is even harder. There is no need to make autistics lose their innocence trying to copy Neurotypicals. Why not take advantage of the positive traits in autism, and use them to win friends and influence people?

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