When I was a kid, I took martial arts lessons (not actually Karate, but something similar). I think my parents thought it was a good idea for two reasons – they wanted me to participate in something with other kids and they wanted me to learn to defend myself.
It didn’t work. Now, granted, I only did this for a year, so I suspect I lacked much insight or experience, and certainly learning from one instructor in one dojo doesn’t imply anything about any other instructor or dojo. But I do think I can talk a bit about why it didn’t work for me, at least with my limited experience.
First, the easy one: I didn’t bond with the other kids. Kids in the dojo, just as kids at the playground, recognized I was different. I didn’t fit. And I never would with them. Putting on a special outfit doesn’t change that. It ignored the problem by simply changing the setting – I don’t get along with kids in school, so maybe somewhere else I’ll get along with them. But it never addressed the root of the problem, just the setting where it occurred. But that’s not what I’m trying to write about today.
For the self-defense aspect, that didn’t work either. Sure, I learned a few blocks, kicks, and punches. I learned to stand one foot in front of the other. So I learned a bit of the basics. But even if I learned the advanced stances, blocks, kicks, and punches, and could perform them well, that wouldn’t have helped. I was missing something: the application. Memorizing muscle moves (even making them part of muscle memory) isn’t the same thing as being able to quickly analyze a situation and determine how to respond. I was smart enough to know that, even when being attacked by other kids physically, most of my moves would end up getting me beat to a pulp even quicker. Running was a better tactic – and I already knew that before class!
Now, I’m sure that plenty of people have used martial arts in self-defense, and that’s good. And maybe I should seek out a better instructor and dojo and learn now. So I realize the limitations of what I’m saying. But the key is that I wasn’t taught how to dynamically respond to a real-life situation, just how to statically respond to a scripted situation. There’s a huge difference between what the “attacker” might have done in the dojo and what he might have done behind the wall at school.
Did you see that? I told you the problem with social skills training, too – learning to respond to a scripted situation isn’t helpful.
Too much of today’s social skills is focused on the same stuff. Seriously. To be honest, I think the training methods may be why autistic guys too often think there is a magic set of steps to essentially get to have sex with a girl. They’ve spent too much time learning formulas, techniques, and scripts. We saw on Kickstarter this week when a “seduction guide” entitled Above the Game that sought funding. Among many problematic parts, the guide told the message that guys don’t have to listen to the girl, they can basically force themselves on her. Fortunately, Kickstart has since removed the guide and attempted to make amends. Kickstarter eventually recognized that the guide is standard “if you want sex, be an asshole” garbage.
The book is appealing to a certain subset of sex-craving men (now I’m not saying this group is generally autistic people or anything similar – although autistics, neurotypicals, and plenty of other groups all have these men in their midst). After all, it says that all the standard dating advice (you know, stuff like “don’t force her to engage in sexual contact without consent”) is wrong. That’s important – it’s appealing to a group of guys that haven’t had the success they want, and they may have even tried (or thought they tried) the “standard” formula. So this is a new-and-improved formula, one that “actually works” (Uh, until you do find a woman that can defend herself – you might end up rightfully having a coffee mug shatter against your own mug; But, sure, rape will get you sex if you’re able to overpower her).
The underlying premise of this seduction guide and all other seduction guides (besides for teaching people to be assholes) is promotion of the idea that there is a formula that you can follow to make – overpower if you will – people do what you want them to do. Give them the right input, you get the output you crave. Maybe it’s sex, maybe it’s something else.
That’s also the premise for much social skills work. You want someone to listen to your special interests? Pretend to be interested in them for a bit. Then you get what you want. Simple. You have control.
One fairly popular – but fairly ineffective – way to teach social skills is “social stories.” It’s ineffective for the same reason my Karate lessons were ineffective: a bunch of techniques or responses to scripted situations doesn’t teach the improvisation necessary in dynamic social situations (you know, like the…uh…”real world”). While it doesn’t have the formality of formal social stories, a variation on this is talking through a make-believe situation and doing role-playing to figure out how to respond. The problem is that this teaches someone a make-believe situation, not the real-life. In real-life, the other person (or group) is going to veer “off-course” pretty much immediately, leaving you lost if you’re expecting scripts to get you through things.
I’ve also seen this with AAC (augmentative and assistive communication). One of the first things people learn when they use (or see someone use AAC) is that it’s slow – painfully slow sometime. The obvious, but wrong, solution is to create a system that stores sentences or thoughts as a whole unit. There’s just one problem – it turns out that even things you think you say all day long are actually unique to the situation most of the time. Sure, sometimes some stored phrases in an electronic device have use, but if you expect more than 1% of your communication to be accomplished that way, you’ll be in for a big surprise when you try.
Karate, seduction guides, social stories, and stored-sentences all have this in common: they work great in a make-believe, scripted situation. And they’ll cause you pain and hurt if you don’t also know how to handle course changes and improvisation.
Another problem with Karate, seduction guides, social stories, and stored-sentences is that they may just plain be the wrong thing, even in a situation that is very similar to the scripted situation. For instance, an example PDF of social stories includes:
The doctor will listen to my chest with a stethoscope.
This helps him/her hear if I am breathing properly and my heart is working well.
The doctor will lift up my shirt, put the stethoscope against my chest and ask me to
breathe in and out.
The stethoscope will feel cold and may tickle but it will not hurt.
I can do this for the doctor and he/she can tell I am ok.
The doctor will be happy and mum will be happy.
Really? It won’t hurt? How does the writer of this story know? They might know it doesn’t hurt themself, but they have no idea about someone else, particularly if that someone else has sensory differences! Certainly it would be better to talk about how the stethoscope may be uncomfortable or cold, but won’t cause lasting hurt them even if it feels like it will. Maybe it’s better to explain “it will be over quickly.” I’m also not a fan of the outcome where the kid is okay – maybe he is, maybe he isn’t – maybe the doctor actually finds something going on. Maybe he/she can tell me if my heart and lungs sound ok. And, no, mom and Doctor better not be happy if he does find something, but they should be happy they found it and can provide medical help.
Is there value in the above? Certainly – you can explain what things someone might expect before a situation. But, once you start making assumptions about how they will experience sensations, or once you start (like most social stories) expecting things to follow a script, there are problems.
There’s tons of other criticisms from autistic adults on many social skills training programs – I won’t go into things like how they may be making an unreasonable demand on an autistic person (“don’t stim” or “look at the person talking” come to mind) that may be counter productive.
What’s a better approach? I’m not entirely sure. But I know we (autistic people) need accurate information. We need accurate information about how to appropriately satisfy our sex drives (hint: it’s not through raping women), deal with the doctor’s office, or defend ourselves from bullies. But, in addition to being accurate, the information needs to teach flexibility and thinking, not just a bunch of memorized sentences, techniques, or scripts. There’s no magic method here – it’s hard stuff for anyone to learn (and even harder to teach). People aren’t tools I use to get what I want. I treat them decent not only because that might help me get something I want, but, more importantly, because it’s simply the right thing to do.