People often tell individuals with ASD to stay “on topic” in a conversation. And there’s some good reason: most people don’t like the feeling that a conversation that goes “off the rails” and turns into being about different than intended.
But do we always need to stay on topic? Have you ever thought about how a typical conversation goes? Many times, they don’t stay on one topic the whole time. It’s more like the conversation veers from the latest episode of Big Bang Theory… to theoretical physics… to physical education class.
So when do we need to stay on topic, and when is ok to stray from the topic a little? It may be helpful to think about finding a balance!
Balance Between Being On Topic and Off on a Tangent
What do you mean I can’t expect to play video games for four hours every night?!
Wait, what’s the homework? And when is it due? How long should it be? Is it OK if it’s longer than that?
I’ve recently heard quotes like these from different high school students with autism. One student seems to think any assigned work is a personal affront on his free time, and the other is incredibly diligent—sometimes too much so. Two very different students with two very different problems. I think the advice we give students is partially to blame.
Common Advice About Hard Work
Teachers and parents often give young people advice about the value of hard work. They say things like, always do you best, and the only things worth having come from hard work. There’s also put your nose to the grindstone, you only get out what you put in, and many more.
These mantras are probably intended to inspire people to keep working on something that’s hard for them. In many cases, this is a nice thought. But there can be problems with this advice, generally speaking and particularly for autistic individuals.
What if someone takes that advice completely to heart and becomes anxious and stressed out, thinking they must work their hardest at all times?
The other problem is that people frequently advise others to do the exact opposite! They say don’t sweat the small stuff. And, take it easy.
Well, which one is it? Should we always work hard? Should we feel relaxed all the time and never worry? Seems to me we need to find a balance.
Finding a Balance Between
Relaxing and Working Hard
It’s not possible to always do your absolute best. That would mean not sleeping so that you can revise that report one more time. And it’s not possible to always relax. You’d never complete anything that’s required of you (and the reality is that life is full of things that are required of you).
Not everyone finds it easy to meet new people. Many neurotypical adults have the realization after college that they don’t really know how to make friends. For people with autism, social challenges and differences in thinking style can make meeting people even more difficult.
I’ve found it helpful to discuss the concept of meeting people in a new group using a handy analogy: finding a balance.
Finding a Balance Between
Revealing Information and Holding Back
Whether your first day at a new school, a new job, or a new club, we join new groups relatively frequently. Each group has its own dynamic—it’s own way that the people involved tend to interact. And it can be extremely complex to figure out every group’s expectations of what to say, how to act, whether to be funny or serious, relaxed or focused.
One of the concepts I’ve worked on with students with ASD when joining a new group is the balance of revealing information about yourself and holding back information. Like with all balance challenges, either extreme can cause predictable problems.
I’ve worked with folks with autism for many years and in a few different capacities—as a teacher, a tutor, a social group facilitator, a staff developer, and as a colleague. I’ve come to see the neurodiversity movement as a crucial perspective to understand and appreciate the differences in autistic and neurotypical thinking. There’s been a lot written on this topic, and I’ll leave the bulk of that discussion to terrific self-advocates like Karla Fisher and Nick Walter among others.
One concept has emerged as central in conceptualizing autism and supporting autistic individuals: finding a balance.
- There is much discussion in the “field” about finding a balance between viewing autism as a difference and a disability (Judy Endow has a great post about this)
- In educating students with autism, teachers need to find a balance between providing structure and encouraging flexibility.
- And regarding support for autistic folk with social challenges, there’s the issue of finding a balance between understanding neurotypical thinking and embracing autistic thinking.
I’ll share more on each of these ideas soon, but I’d like to start with a concrete example.
Finding a Balance Between My Wants and Other People’s Wants
One of the most fundamental balance challenges in any social interaction is to figure out how much to jump in / share / contribute / participate, and when to hold back / listen / take a pause.