What’s Your Social Spot?


A few years ago, in a Zimbabwe village a mental health organization set up a bench in the centre of the town to address a high rate of depression among villagers.  It was meant to encourage people to share their problems with each other.  They called it the Mental Health Bench.   No one came. No one wanted to sit on a Mental Health Bench.  Eventually, it was renamed The Friendship Bench.  People came. They stayed to talk. Stories were told, problems discussed, possible solutions found.   Connections were made.  The rate of depression among at-risk villagers went down significantly.

Here in North America’s busy techno-driven world, depression is at an all time high.  It is very high among adolescents and young adults with learning differences such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  One research study cites the rate of suicidal tendencies in young adults with ASD as five times higher than those without ASD in the same age group.  Why?

Even though we are “connected” by technology with thousands of people, we still need human contact. Interacting online means we control our social signals – because most of them are standardized – emojis are a good example.   And so, we become less adept at face to face interactions and our innate need for human contact goes untended. Screens that “connect” our adolescents and young adults with differences, also DISconnect them from peers with whom they might find some commonality, a basis for friendships.

But why connect if you are someone who “doesn’t like people”? I meet many people like this.  They self-identify as antisocial. One guy I know regularly goes to the mall.  He may not buy anything.  He goes into his favourite tech store, might have coffee or lunch and then goes back to his home office.  The mall is his social spot.  He gets a “hit” of people, and returns to his solitude.  Does this make him antisocial?  Well, he goes to a place where there are people. He says he does not LIKE them; but he still goes where they are.  He also attends movies, ball games and the opera…where there are lots of people.   He is in interdependent social settings, making up part of the larger social group.  He is a social being.

Social Improv sessions act like a Friendship Bench.  Instead of sitting and talking, we get together and learn improv games.  These games have a social focus to help players decode other’s social signals and expectations.  We explore how interactions work.  We meet once a week for a short time.  Players may or may not connect with each other afterward – when they do, they use their phones. But I often hear players say how good it feels to participate in our groups.  Many of our players are soloists (AKA antisocial!)  They enjoy being by themselves.  Or they may have learned it is just easier to be alone.  So, they feel great when they find out in Social Improv, that one to one interactions CAN feel good.  And they don’t have to pretend to be someone else or even to like everyone to join the group!  Social Improv is their Friendship Bench.

There is a Friendship Bench Organization here in Canada.  It was started after the death of a second year Carlton University robotics student named Lucas Fiorella.   Lucas had secretly suffered from depression and died by suicide in 2014.  You’ll find the link to that organization at the end of this blog.

So, whether it is a bench or a mall or a coffee shop, what is YOUR social spot?  If you can’t think of one, where could it be?  Even if you feel you shouldn’t need one, we all need our social spot.  Where is yours?

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Posted in Adult Autistics, Blog Post, The Hidden Curriculum Tagged with: , ,

The C.A.R.E. Model: Accept (Saying Yes!)

yes flower

The C.A.R.E. Model: Accept (Saying Yes!)

It is a basic tenet of Improvisation, since Viola Spolin’s early Los Angeles classes to today’s widely-watched T.V. show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, that accepting an idea given by a playing partner (Yes) and adding something on to that idea (And) will naturally lead to an interesting scene. And, in theory, this is the case. However there are many ways we can say “yes” to an idea but still not really commit.

When is “yes” not really “yes”? When it comes with conditions “Yes…But”. When it is not heartfelt “Yes…I guess.” When it is not a yes at all…. “Yes… NO”. And when this happens, the scene begins to falter as players sense not everyone is on board. The conditions of the scene become too many to remember when, instead of accepting an initial idea, we just throw our idea in on top of everyone else’s.

(And…And…And) How many elements can we stuff into a scene before we lose track of them and the thing devolves into an exercise in justifying a series of incongruities?: “Of course I can bowl during Mom’s funeral with a mousetrap full of tubesocks!” might make for a funny line but completely bury the scene. Or the whole thing may never get that far because the tepid improviser will be quickly backing out of the picture and those remaining have no choice but to start preparing the inevitable speech/apology to the audience.

So why can’t we just say “YES”!? Here are some reasons:

  • We don’t trust our partner
  • We don’t trust ourselves
  • We have an idea we HAVE to do– it’s just better than everyone else’s
  • We’re thinking ahead to try to control the scene

Any of these will mean we aren’t right there with our playing partner. How much trust can two (or more) people give to one another? Lots, but it always feels risky. Add the elevated stakes of a performance, in FRONT of a bunch of people, who may or may not be your immediate family plus the person who lives down the hall from  you who said they would like to come to one of your shows and it gets really hard not to worry about looking like a complete idiot.

A TIP: If you are big on having dignity, do not become an improviser. We have very little. The sooner you make your peace with that, the better.

Commenting on the scene from inside it or making fun of your playing partner are NOT options here. They just are not. Even if you don’t do those things and you still sneak out of the scene, you’re essentially saying, “I didn’t sign up for this”. Even though about 2 minutes and 17 seconds ago, you did just that. By stepping into the scene.

In improvising, always take the chance – Say “Yes… And”. Trust your partner to do the same. Then see what happens.

At best, you’ll create something together neither of you could have imagined alone.

And you could have fun. At worst…well, you never have to do that scene again…

And you might have fun!Yes-2

Take C.A.R.E.!
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Posted in Adult Autistics, Blog Post, Social Improv, The Hidden Curriculum Tagged with: , , , ,

How Do We Start at the Party?

join the party

I love children’s books. But now that my son is grown, I forget to reread them. Recently I dug an old favourite out of our collection of Keepers. It’s called “The Party” by Barbara Reid.   It is about two little girls going with their parents to one of those backyard summer family parties to celebrate their Grandma’s birthday.  I love the artwork and the simple but evocative prose of this book. But there is a more important feature of the story. It’s a practical guide to how we navigate social gatherings. “The Party” describes all the social elements of the C.A.R.E. model .  In social settings, there is so much to read and interpret, finding our way through can be daunting. Personally, I always found it nerve-wracking. I was well into my thirties before I felt enough confidence in myself to go to social events without being paralyzed by fear. Things are much better for me now but I know the pain and frustration of social anxiety and how it limits one’s life.

In this book, the big question is:  “How do we start at the party?” Initiating and navigating contact with others are skills that get stronger with practice.  But you need to know how to do them.

The first step is evaluation. In “The Party”,  the girls meet some cousins as soon as they arrive. First they all stand and look at each other. Then, they begin to share information. Someone has lost a tooth, someone else cut their own hair. Another boy skinned his knee. They each share their updates, events, big news. Watching and listening, we find what we have in common with others in the group. And we gravitate towards those people. If there are not many folks who share our interests, we can continue to observe the action. Consulting a cell phone isn’t usually a recommended practice for in person socializing, but it can provide cover for anyone wanting to “watch the room” and wait to see where they might slide in. Just don’t get lost in your messages!

When (and if) you do find your “people”, you begin to interact with them. In the story, the kids start to play tag. This eventually transforms into a fantasy game involving a dragon (sleeping uncle) and illicit treasure (some potato chips to be stolen away). Playing together is an important developmental step in learning to socialize. Eventually it evolves into interactions like chatting. But however we get there, we are looking for those we can relate to in some way. It need only be one or two others. Think of your little group as a mini oasis in the larger social gathering.

In ”The Party”, after the playing and eating and singing Happy Birthday are done, the sky begins to get dark and the gathering winds down. There is that last burst of energy as kids try to hide from their parents to avoid leaving. This is another tricky social skill: exiting. Eventually, after final pleas from the kids, lawn chairs and children are gathered up and packed into cars. Goodbyes are called and the party’s over. At the end of the book,  the two sleepy sisters are tucked in the back seat, with traces of icing on their faces and their hair all out of place. They are the perfect picture of a good time. Whenever my son and I closed the book, it always felt like we’d been at the party too.

Parties have been on my mind since the holiday season just passed.  In December, ImprovAbility hosted a “Festivus” Party., taking the theme from a famous Seinfeld episode.  (“A Festivus for the Rest Of Us!”) This was The Unparty for those who don’t party, for whatever reason. The room had specific areas devoted to activities.  There was a guitarist with some other instruments ( if you wanted to play along ), “Feats of Strength” (board games), The Airing of Grievances (a table with one of our coaches ready to hear any problems…or to take compliments if you were doing fine), and of course food.  Meatloaf is the suggested food for Festivus but we modified the menu in favour of more fun fare.  As people arrived, they read the signs (actual signs on the walls) to help everyone figure out where they might be most comfortable.

One young man was very anxious and kept his coat on until he felt O.K. to come inside the room.  When the party was over, he was one of the last to leave.  But to start, he needed to be able to join at his own pace. No one urged him to come in.  Everyone just let him evaluate the room from the hall until he had sorted it out for himself and found a place to start.

A group of our younger adults huddled together with their phones in hand, chatting and consulting their screens.  I overrode my impulse to suggest the phones go away so they could just talk.  This was working for them… They were
interacting in a socially typical way for their age group.

Groups formed and reformed.  People with varying degrees of social comfort chatted.   Some sat and enjoyed the music, others played board games intensely,  ( the only way to approach a “Feat of Strength”).  And while there turned out to be very little grievance airing, many people approached John to talk about a variety of topics.

After two hours, we made a clear announcement that the party was winding up in 15 minutes.  Most people were there till the finish.  They left wanting more, the best way to leave.  One real social pitfall is to try to extend a good time beyond it’s “Best Before” date.   Always exit before you feel too tired or stressed to leave feeling positive.  Imprint a memory of social success for yourself.  Stockpile your fun social events – to draw on when you feel down or socially shy.

So, the next time you go to a social event, assess the room before you do anything.  Then try to find someone else who may be a reluctant socializer. Maybe ask them an opening question:  “Have you tasted the dip?”  “How do you know… (Host’s Name Here)…?”   Or start with an opening comment,  about a neutral common subject: “This room is great for parties.”  “The food here is delicious.”  or  “I’ll bet they throw a lot of parties, the hosts are so relaxed”  (if that’s true…)  Then wait and listen.  See how the other person responds.  They might be nervous too. But no matter, you’ve made a start at the party.

Take CARE!

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Communicating with C.A.R.E.

blog post care picture

Communicating with C.A.R.E.

Every time we interact with someone, we use C.A.R.E.  Even if we don’t LIKE the person or even know them, C.A.R.E. is the process we use.  C.A.R.E. stands for:  Contact, Agreement, Reception, Response, and Exit.

Take a look at any completed interaction in your day:  the pleasant exchange in the grocery store lineup, the deep conversation with your best friend about your crazy neighbour, the near-fight you witnessed in front of the bank when that girl in the SMART car scooped the Audi guy’s parking spot. It’s all there.

Contact is any look, word, gesture, or movement that initiates an interaction.

Agreement follows when the potential partner indicates they are “in”.  The returned eye contact.  The “let’s go” stance.  The welcoming smile of recognition.   Without agreement there is no INTERaction.

Reception is the natural followup to agreement.  When we agree and receive the initial invitation, we indicate, “I’m ready to ‘play’”.

A Response can be spoken, physical, a breath, a look, a signal.  Whether is it pleasant or not so pleasant, a response is a response is a…. well you get it.

And finally, when the course of the interaction is run (and sometimes long after) we Exit, leaving the interaction.

This whole process can last 5 seconds or hours.  But the process is always the same no matter the length.

So what about those folks who may not shift social gears in the same way as others?  What about people who make fuzzy (or no) eye contact but continue to talk at you as though you’ve given them the go-ahead?  (“No I don’t want to talk to …   Ok you’re talking to me anyway… what a jerk, he isn’t even paying attention to me”.)   These are people with social learning gaps.  You may know someone like this.  Or you may be like this yourself. But, when we consistently have less than successful interactions, something in our C.A.R.E. process is amiss.

This is only important if it creates problems in life.  If it ain’t broke (just quirky) don’t fix it.  But, if you or someone you know or love is consistently having difficulty interacting, it can probably be tracked back to C.A.R.E. The good news – there is lots you can do.

More later on why these things might happen, but what to do? Once you have zeroed in on what area of your C.A.R.E. is out of synch, HOW you close that “gap” can be as simple as a matter of rehearsal and practice.

You might need to slow down and really acknowledge what the other person is telling you – our rush to respond can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.

You may not be showing that you have received your partner’s message – if you don’t let me know you’ve at least heard me, I’ll start to get a bit…grouchy.  And I will probably go on automatic pilot.

Or perhaps you need to clarify with your partner that they have understood your meaning.  In a nice way…there are LOTS of ways to say “Was I clear?”.  The medium IS the message, after all.

Active communication is INTERactive.  If you are stuck in Reaction, you are a communication hostage.  If you are only ACTING you are a communication soloist – which is lonely for your partner and ultimately for you.  Soon they’ll begin to glaze over and look for the exit.

As an improv teacher and social coach, I encourage students to let messages “land” with them.   As a communicator, are you performing a solo or truly INTERacting with your partner?

More to come on how Social Improv© Games address each part of the C.A.R.E. model.   Meantime take C.A.R.E.!

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Autism Rocked – We Were Moved.

brown paper with scribbles, doodles and notes; a small hand-lettered cursive sign reads 'Autistic Pride'. There are crayons lined up at the bottom of the picture.

Autism Rocked…We Were Moved.

I love conferences.  You could say I’m a conference junkie.  This past week, I walked into the second day of a conference unlike any other I have attended to date.  “Autism Rocks…Let Us Move You” was held in Newmarket on Nov. 2 & 3.  It was created by and for people with autism.  Entering the hall there were the usual tables, podium, and microphone.   But these tables were covered in brown paper and there were crayons and suckers sprinkled around randomly.  On the paper covering the tables were colourful drawings and doodles from the previous days participants.  Table posters reinforced Autism Positive messages –  “Different, not Less”  “Not About Us Without Us” “Autistic Pride”.   The language was direct.  Bold.  Unapologetic.  First Person – which implies Person First, but is more straightforward.   The person-centric language issue has been controversial.  Person With Autism or Autistic?  For this conference, the term “Autistic” was accepted and encouraged.  I will use it interchangeably with other terms here.

Conferences can be tiring.  I have strategies.  I take notes & pictures on my ipad.  Bring my own water and something Gluten/Sugar Free to eat.  A sweater if it’s cold (it was) and a couple of layers to peel if it’s hot.   I do square breathing and have my own discreet sensory “resets” I use when overloaded. (Finger pulls and pushes out of sight are reenergizing and refocusing).    It’s a lot of work.

This event, however, wasn’t work.  At “Autism Rocks…Let Us Move You.” I felt included and welcome.  There were several supports, which, oddly I haven’t found at other Autism Oriented Conferences, beyond the request that participants refrain from wearing scent or possibly eating nut products.    “Autism Rocks” attendees were encouraged to wear communication badges to let others know what mode they were in:  green, I will communicate with everyone; yellow, I will speak only with those I know; red, I will not communicate with anyone right now.   Everyone got all three colours in a badge holder to display around their neck.  Whatever colour you displayed was the mode you were in.  By lunch I was yellow.  I didn’t use the red badge, but felt happy that I could if necessary.  If you needed to be red all day, no one was going to intervene or try to “help”.  The entire event was about how autistic people live with those issues every day.  Many were demonstrating  strategies for dealing with crowds or sensory issues. Some participants were knitting.  Some of us were colouring.  Some of us moved quietly around the room.  A few people fidgeted with sensory toys.  But everyone was listening in their way.

Which brings me to the most powerful part of the event for me.   Witnessing Autistics convey an unvarnished reality of life as parents, workers, partners and PEOPLE in a society that promotes homogeneity and suspects anything else, was re-affirming and energizing.   I was reminded how deeply anxiety in autistics can run, even when someone looks, if not calm, then unfazed.  I thought anew about all the different areas of Executive Function that can create havoc socially, academically, professionally, logistically, and psycho-emotionally when they are out of sync.  And I was taught again not to make assumptions based on the external messages I think I am getting from someone on the spectrum.  Their interior life may differ vastly from what is going on externally.  Neurotypicals expect to be able to “read” everyone so we can get on with things.  For people with autism, the same socially accepted signals can seem confusing and unnecessary impediments to THEIR getting on with it.  And so we have a cultural gap to be bridged.

Add to that gap, the additional challenge of being a female on the spectrum, which was the focus of the morning of Day 2 – “Girls and Women on the Spectrum” – and life can get even more complicated with less information out there and more difficulty obtaining an accurate diagnosis.

Having autism is a different way of being.  It creates multiple challenges as well as unique abilities and gifts.  Autism is only a crisis if our larger communities do not acknowledge, accommodate and include those with neurological differences.

Teachers, helpers, artists, writers, scientists, thinkers, inventors – many gifted people colour outside the lines and think outside the box.  Why are we still reluctant to embrace other ways of thinking and being when so many of these have brought us such things as computers, new scientific concepts, symphonies, paintings and technologies?

As John Elder Robison, high-profile “Aspergian” (person with Asperger’s), advocate and author says: “Building up a weakness just makes you less disabled. Building a strength can take you to the top of the world.”  This conference gave attendees a view of both and gave a unifying positive voice to the participants with autism who are different, not less.

I was sorry to have missed the day one of this conference, which I heard was also wonderful.  For information on all the presenters and more on the event, visit:  http://mandy2395.wix.com/autismrocks#!about/cjg9

Kudos to the organizers of this conference, Mandy Klein, Autistic parent /advocate/blogger and Maxine Share, “parent of”/KPAS family consultant, as well as Kerry’s Place Autism Services and Autism Ontario York Region and the many volunteers who made it happen.   Hoping this is the first of many more.

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