Autism & Socialization: The Ins and Outs of Successful Conversations
By Ruby Sasson
As a public high school student working through social skills challenges, I’ve developed an approach to engaging in conversations that has improved my interactions with both peers and adults. Balancing speaking with listening is an essential part of a healthy conversation. If you spend too much time speaking, for instance, your message might get lost. As someone who has a lot to say, I’ve found that it can be difficult to balance those two in the heat of a conversation. As a general rule, I try to keep the speaking to listening ratio as close to 50:50 as possible. The difficulties of speaking can express themselves in several ways that can be different for different individuals. For example, I tend to speak with excess volume and occasionally insensitivity. When excited, it can be all too easy to raise my voice a little too loud and my words may be lost. In the aftermath of a conversation, it can be easy for the memory to lose track of what was actually said and instead focus on other characteristics, like how the conversation was a little too loud for the environment. In general, when one is speaking in excess volume, it may become uncomfortable and a drop of awkwardness may be injected into the conversation. Raising your voice a little too loudly can similarly happen when misjudging distances between the speaker and the listener.
Listening can be equally as challenging as speaking. Firstly, there is a distinction between hearing and listening. It’s important to be present and focused on the message of your conversation partner. Sometimes, if I lack interest in the conversation topic my attention may drift and my lack of engagement may be noticed and misinterpreted. To ask someone to listen to you when you won’t listen to them isn’t quite fair. Many people enjoy talking about themselves and their own interests, but it takes a certain dedication to listening to try and invest in someone else’s interests that may not coincide with your own. Along with that, showing active signs that you are listening to the speaker is important. If you’re staring down at the floor during a conversation, your partner may not realize that you are engaged and paying attention. You may unintentionally send the message that you are not at all interested in the speaker’s words. As such, It’s important to keep eye contact. Avoiding the eyes is typically a clear sign you don’t want to be around to listen to what is being said.
In a follow-up conversation, the attentive listening becomes even more important. It makes a good impression when you prove that you enjoyed the previous conversation enough to remember the little things that your partner may have told you of themselves. Most people will forgive small scraps of information being forgotten, as long as you make an effort to not seem like you found the information unimportant. Remembering personal details shared in the previous conversation tells your conversation partner that you’re showing an active interest in truly getting to know them. People appreciate interest because any relationship is a balance of giving and taking, or in this case, listening and speaking.
When the roles of speaker and listener are being transitioned, it’s always important to be able to gauge when it’s an appropriate time to initiate this shift in roles. It’s a difficult skill, one I find myself still working on. Sometimes people might pause to collect their words and I may mistake that gap for them being done with their current line of thought. I’ve found that pausing for 2 seconds or so before speaking helps clarify when a person has finished expressing their thoughts and also allows me time to process what has been said. Speaking in a group of people can be especially challenging. When in a group, it can be easy for two people to attempt to speak at once when a third person has finished speaking. Then comes the decision of who should actually speak next. In this situation, it’s important to give everyone a chance to express themselves while finding an appropriate time to share your thoughts.
Honing many of these skills mid-conversation can be difficult, and it’s often important to obtain feedback to gauge your progress. It’s good to have a friend or other individual that you know who will be honest if you ask questions regarding your volume, or perhaps how much of the conversation you may be taking up. You can use this constructive feedback to adjust and improve your conversational skills.
In speaking and listening, it’s always important to make your feelings, thoughts, and intentions clear. People’s minds tend to race and jump to conclusions when your message is left vague, and sometimes those assumptions aren’t so kind. It’s always important to clarify so your conversational partner doesn’t assume the worst. A good conversation should leave everyone happy and content!
Ruby is a high school junior who lives life on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. Ruby was born in China and lives in New England with her parents, her dog Clementine and a grumpy ragdoll cat named Hero. She has an older sister who is currently away from home at college. Ruby enjoys creating characters through creative writing and drawing and participates in Dungeons and Dragons sessions with her friends.