College Social Scenes: My Ways to Overcome Social Challenges | Organization for Autism Research

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James Taniguchi is a 2016 OAR Scholarship recipient. This is the second post in his series for OAR’s blog.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this blog will focus on my college experience so far and the social strategies I’m using to overcome my challenges with verbal communication. This post is intended to help students with autism who are planning to or currently attending college, while for many, this is the first experience to live independently away from their parents without depending on a previous social support network. College can be a stressful experience, especially if you are living in an unfamiliar social environment without guidance. I’ve been navigating through appropriate social techniques and trying to find ways to compensate for my social and communication challenges for the past 2 years in college. On the other hand, the transition from high school to college was also a very exciting experience, where I finally realized that I don’t have to endure school for several hours each day. My passion for research, learning, and gaining a deeper understanding of my academic interests is something that I enjoy as a college student.

My Challenges I have experienced in college so far:

In college, the social techniques I learned in high school did not prevent me from encountering frequent miscommunications and difficulty connecting to my peers on a personal level. The pace of social interactions in college is very fast compared to secondary school, especially at a large public university. Short and unexpected social interactions frequently take place in dorms with roommates or suitemates. I realized that frequent misunderstandings originated from my struggles with short conversations. “Small talk” was present in dorms, lecture halls, discussion sections, clubs, and especially when I introduced myself to new people.

With my narrow interests, it can be difficult to engage in short conversations about trending movies, music, TV shows, celebrities, or artists that I have no idea about and don’t have any interest in. Also, many people are less tolerant with my difficulties including occasional pauses, repeated words and phrases, and speech that doesn’t make much sense. My sensitivity to bright and noisy environments makes me susceptible to constant fatigue and stress.

After lots of trial-and-error, I have found some social techniques to overcome the “invisible” social barrier, a barrier that implies social, verbal, or sensory difficulties. I’m still facing many of the same challenges today regarding long-term relationships and finding a place to belong in college, but I will do the best I can to explain some of the things I have learned so far. With the right social approaches, I believe that people on the autism spectrum can form intimate friendships rather than having to change their own personal identity.

Challenges with Daily/Short Conversations:

Some of my communication challenges include daily situations, where social interactions are necessary when living in a dorm with roommates or suitemates. I was constantly overwhelmed with trying to engage in short conversations with my peers throughout the first year in college, where my university did not have any housing guarantees for obtaining a single room. Attending college marked a transition from having a private space where I can cool down to manage my stress and sensory overload to living in a dorm full of conversations and unfamiliar social scenes. Some of the social techniques mentioned here helped me alleviate some of my social stress and find people whom I can trust upon building a friendship.

Some techniques I use:

To overcome my challenges in unexpected greetings or daily conversations, planning a set of greetings or salutations beforehand can alleviate my worry of being socially awkward or not being able to respond.

  • Due to the arbitrary nature and unexpected usage in greetings, it can be difficult to respond to the following phrases: “How is it going?” or “Anything new?” I learned to respond by coming up with something that happened within the past week or saying something along the lines of “nothing much happened.”
  • If not feeling well, exhausted, or having a rough day, it is okay to make this clear by saying something like: “I’m not doing…” or “I’m doing okay/I’m having a busy day.”
  • Occasionally mixing-up greetings and responses will be perceived as friendly and sociable.

Active Listening is also crucial, where occasional “yeah” or “ok” responses and non-verbal nods will tell the person you are talking with that you are receptive to social interactions. But, some people want you to ask questions or comment on what they are talking about, making short conversations difficult. 

  • Try asking questions, even if it implies that you don’t have a strong understanding in the topic. Peers are usually receptive to questions as a sign that you are friendly and genuinely interesting in learning more about the topic or building a friendship.
  • Also, try telling whoever you are talking with what your interests are and topics that you want to discuss. If your interests match their interests, it is easier to build a deeper relationship. This also allows you a chance to become more engaged in short conversations, as it becomes easier to respond and ask questions. (Like “throwing a ball back and forth” with words and ideas)

It is okay that your interests might not match other people’s interests. I learned that my personal interests and hobbies are something that I cherish and that make up a part of my identity. If a peer asks about your interests, try to be honest and open about them. It’s likely that your peers will respect your values, and if they don’t, try to stay away from these people.

Eye contact can be disturbing and sometimes intimidating for me, as I cannot concentrate on my thoughts or speech when I look someone in the eye for too long.

  • Looking someone in their eyes or face every 3-4 sec. is okay.
  • If you are talking about an important topic, you don’t have to increase your eye contact duration to get you message through. Instead, using a simple hand movement like showing your palms will help your peers understand that you are trying to communicate something important.

For peers I just met or don’t know quite well, I avoid telling them directly that I am autistic. This is because coming out with an “autism” label might often lead to confusion and misunderstandings, as autism is still stigmatized as a form of mental illness that makes people unable to socially function. Instead:

  • People are receptive to your needs during short interactions, so telling them about how you are working on communication or social skills may lead to increased trust. From my experience, telling that you are working towards a goal can help portray your weakness in a positive and friendly manner.
  • Once a firm relationship is established and you feel comfortable around someone, telling them that you are autistic may help build a friendship. There are many people with other challenges (including physical, learning, and neurodevelopmental) and open-minded individuals who are very understanding and even curious to know about your perspectives.

My experiences and strategies to overcome the “invisible” barrier (which I discussed in my last post) may not apply to all individuals with autism. I understand that each of us may face different challenges and experiences to learn and grow from. Thank you for reading and I am also open to comments or questions regarding my experiences and understanding of autism.

This post shared my experiences and some of the strategies I use to overcome my social and communication challenges in a fast-paced environment, including planning ahead, being yourself, and thinking carefully about when to tell people about autism.

In my next blog post, I will elaborate on challenges associated with processing differences and sensory hypersensitivity. Many of my social and communication difficulties also come from difficulty speaking fluently and concentrating during conversations, making the social techniques above difficult to use. Environments with too much sensory information or high intensity can make social interactions difficult from sensory overload. In my next post, I will discuss potential ways to overcome these physical challenges, while I’m still trying out new strategies today.

About the Author

James_Taniguchi_headshotJames Taniguchi is a recipient of the 2016 Schwallie Family Scholarship and currently a college sophomore who is pursuing a degree in neuroscience. His verbal language delay became apparent in preschool, and he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at the age of 6. As an American-born Japanese person living in the Bay Area, he has been traveling to Japan every year since 2001. His hobbies include working in labs, reading research papers, listening to instrumental music, and occasional walks to the beach near his college campus.

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