Living with my son Frankie, and working every day with other people on the spectrum, I have learned that folks diagnosed with ASD experience the world differently than those of us sometimes described as "neurotypical." This difference is apparent in day-to-day conversation. It is especially apparent when there are delicate social issues and emotions involved, such as the situation with Victor in this week's episode of Parenthood. People diagnosed with ASD often "just don't get it." They have a fundamental disability or at times even an inability to read social cues that would help them to more smoothly navigate the social terrain. There is a lack of social lubrication.
Most of the time this inability to read social cues causes no special problems for the person with ASD. He is blissfully unaware that he may have trampled on this or that social convention. The people around him, even the people who know him best and should know better, will at times suffer all manner of angst and concern over the topics raised by the person with ASD: talking about death; pointing out the obvious to a new family member; discussing financial matters or family arguments in public; and being especially concerned about "How is this going to affect me?" are all typical of people diagnosed with ASD.
Exactly how should parents respond to these sorts of social gaffes? Do we just say, "Oh that's the way he is?" or do we point out the difficulty, try to explain what is wrong about it, and problem-solve for the next time? I really don't know that there is a "right" or "wrong" way to address these social slips. I know for me there are times when I just let the comments slide. It seems that the effort needed to explain what is not quite right about the social interaction takes more energy than I can expend and generally takes more than Frankie is willing to tolerate. There are other times when I will sit down and very patiently try to explain the social context and talk about others' feelings, trying to help Frankie put himself in another's place. That process can be very frustrating and not always particularly successful, despite my best efforts.
Most of the time, I try to distill the essence of the social interaction into a hard and fast rule. The rule is generally not flexible and cannot be applied generally, but hopefully it helps Frankie to avoid some of the social gaffes. Avoiding those gaffes keeps him, and many times me, from dealing with the social fallout that can occur in the wake of a social slip-up. A rule may be as simple as, "Don't talk about money with people outside the family." However, it's easy to see that such rules can lead to some difficult situations. So I simply don't know the "right way" to deal with these social difficulties.
I suppose like most things about ASD the answer is to simply keep struggling until the struggling works itself into some kind of solution. Over time, Frankie has learned to limit his observations and generally follow some basic rules about social interaction, even though he still doesn't understand why he has to say or not say certain things in a particular way. He has simply learned that it makes things easier for him, and most of the time that's enough. His struggle is to continue to try to live and function in a world where there are more neurotypicals than people diagnosed with ASD. For those of you familiar with the Star Trek franchise, I think a patient of mine said it best: "I feel like a Vulcan living on a Klingon world."
Written by Roy Sanders, M.D.