They have lost their social skills.. Why we cannot lose something that was not ours to begin with

They have lost their social skills

I often get requests to help Autistic adults with their social skills. Often it comes as a request to help someone who has “lost their social skills”.


But we cannot lose what was not ours in the first place.


I can understand why someone, usually a concerned parent sees it this way. But when I get this sort of request I hear “they’re in burnout” and here’s why:


Contrary to misguided beliefs that Autistics lack social skills and need robust support in this area in reality we don’t. Current research shows that Autistic people are actually really good communicators. We are really good at communicating with other Autistics. Which is the same as non-autistics. They also are really good at communicating with each other. Research carried out in Edinburgh University in 2020 shows that where there is a mismatch in neurotypes there is a mismatch in communication. This research shows something different. It shows that Autistic people and people who are not

Autistics simply have different ways of communicating. No one is deficient in social skills, it’s just that we have communication differences.

This happens across cultures and is dependant on a large number of factors that I call the Six S’s of social interaction.

Can we lose our social skills?

What effects our ability to communicate with one another? 

 

Several factors! Everything from the weather to how we feel about ourselves in that moment to early childhood trauma to our education. 

 

So why do I think “burnout” when I get a request to help a person who has “lost their social skills”?

 

 

Here’s why: 

 

 

We know Autistics are often forced to conform to non-autistic ways of communicating. This includes forced eye contact, looking at the person who is speaking, giving non-autistic non-verbal listening cues, turn taking in conversation, mimicking non-autistic body language and ways of interacting. 

We also know that Autistics are often shamed for our wonderful way of communicating. We are told we are too blunt, or rude and shouldn’t question authority. We are often shamed for our bodily movements. We are excluded because of our interests or for sharing them with passion. 

 

We are othered. 

This then leads to masking- a stress response or trauma response to being constantly rejected and shamed by our social world. Masking is often described as something we do “to fit in” but this then should raise the question: “why are Autistics not allowed in?”.

 

Unfortunately this question doesn’t seem relevant to many and instead of looking to our social world for solutions many place the burden on Autistics to do the “expected behaviour” or to hide who we truly are so that others find us more acceptable. We need to be asking “why are Autistics excluded and marginalised, why is our way of being not celebrated?” 

 

But I digress…

Masking – locking your sensitive true self away, deep inside and burying it in versions of what others want us to be is often our best chance at survival.

 

Masking is a survival technique.

 

And yes, lots of people mask to some extent but for Autistics trying to be what everyone else wants us to be day in day out takes its toll. 

 

Masking doesn’t just involve masquerading like putting on your front door voice or posing for pictures for your instagram. Masking is about protecting ourselves and constantly assessing risk in everyday interactions which others take for granted. 

 

Not because we lack social skills but because we lack acceptance in our social world. 

This effort takes its toll which is why when people talk about “loss of social skills” or “regression” I hear burnout. 

 

I hear the untold story of this person who is exhausted from trying to meet the expectations of others and yet never quite getting there. I hear their unwritten tale of constant shame. I hear their internal monologue where that inner critic spends most of its time telling them how useless they are. I see their struggles to make friends only to be met with rejection time and time again. 

 

I see their stress when met with a seemingly harmless question like “what music do you like?”

That question and others like it can sound like a threat at times. Why? 

 

Because there is a huge risk involved. 

“What if I say I like this music… how might they respond? … the last time I answered this way I got this response, the fifty other times I answered this question I got these fifty responses….”

 

And then they run through all fifty, neatly stored shameful experiences of when they answered this question but somehow got it “wrong”. 

 

Masking means that we are constantly on high alert, constantly searching for perceived threats, constantly assessing and constantly creating ways to survive. 

 

So when I hear “they lost their social skills” I know they did not. And before we get Bo Peep in with her search party or Nurse Nancy with her big book of social skills, we need to look at what is really going on inside that Autistic person. 

 

I know that they were playing many different roles. Roles adapted and recreated based on other people’s reactions. Roles, carefully crafted through sleepless nights and waking hours spinning like plates on sticks , always waiting to come crashing down with the slightest hint of rejection from someone else.

 

 

A life lived in fear 

 

 

In fear of more rejection

 

 

And of being truly seen and rejected for it. 

And so the effort eventually takes its toll and the everyday performance becomes too much so we lose the ability to mask. 


We do not lose our social skills because they were never our social skills to begin with- they are someone else’s social skills.


“They lost their social skills” means that they are burnout, that they are just too exhausted to keep all those plates spinning and so the plates fall and we are left with a very stressed, tired and burnout person who could’ve been so different had the world only let them in as they were.


This is our reality. 


Let’s make room for Autistics in this social world we all share. 

One Response

  1. A to the MEN!!!! We’re the ones blamed for conversation failure when in reality , the NT doesn’t want to do the extra work of caring their share of the conversation.
    Also , Autistic and Multiply Neurodivergent folx are taught negative social cues when we get thrust in these goddamned social skills classes.. because the NTs don’t want to teach the NT students NOT to be hateful little jerks .
    NTs don’t want to learn to take our perspectives, let alone that we even have perspectives .
    We bust our tails to over-accommodate these over privileged people who don’t even want to reciprocate our over accommodation of their special needs .
    Not having to beg and plead to get your needs met , is a special need .
    Being automatically taken seriously is a special need .
    Being validated automatically, is a special need.
    Having ones communication and socialization styles held as superior to those of Autistic and Neurodivergent folx is a special need .
    Being automatically accommodated , without begging and pleading , only to be refused or told to look from the perspective of the person from whom said accommodations are requested, at best and at worst getting crickets, and some NT gets granted the accommodations, that’s a special need .
    Having your perspective always seen as correct and that of the Autistic person always seen as wrong , that’s another special need .

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