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Asperger’s Syndrome

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BIOGRAPHY – My Journey

I am not a naturally gifted speaker but I am someone who has worked extremely hard to get where I am today. I consider speech to be both my greatest weakness and my biggest strength in life. When I was a child mutism was a big issue for me; I couldn’t talk even if I wanted to in situations where I felt uncomfortable or shy. In fact, I do still suffer from mutism, but improving my speaking skills as a result of making over 500 YouTube videos and changing my lifestyle in ways that suit my introverted personality means that it happens much less often nowadays.

Speaking for me is full of contradictions: in some situations I close up like a clam and can’t say a word, and in other situations I can’t shut up! At school I always sat at the front of the class and put my hand up for every question, and at university I happily engaged in debates with lecturers and students alike, often dominating seminars with my outspoken opinions (I graduated with a First Class degree in English Literature). Another contradiction: while I can give a spontaneous talk lasting an hour to a crowd of 200 people with relative ease, I sometimes feel painfully awkward when saying ‘thank you’ to a cashier in a shop.

The English language and its words have always been an imaginative escape for me. When I was little I would even get absorbed reading the back of the shampoo bottle while having a bath: ‘Aqua, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate…’. Another fixation I had at around ten years old was reading every entry in my giant Oxford English Dictionary until I finished it.

My fascination with the English language began with reading words, though over time this has changed into the sounds of words and voices speaking words. The sounds of speech, word choice, the presence or absence of vocal ticks and the position of a person’s voice is something that to me carries layers upon layers of normally hidden information. When I hear a voice now, I can peer into a person’s psychology, like an x-ray machine. However, I limit those kinds of observations as doing so and talking about what I find is snooping and boundary violation, unless I have been specifically asked to read a person in that way.

A big failure for me is that so far my talent for language does not extend to actually speaking any foreign languages beyond the basics. While my ear can quickly pick up a language when it comes to understanding what is going on, my tongue is frozen unless I am completely comfortable. I lived in Turkey for two and a half years and during that time I can only recall one conversation where I felt comfortable enough that I let go and actually spoke Turkish, absolutely astounding myself that I could speak the language, for once! The rest of the time either my mind was blank or I would awkwardly deflect attempts at conversation with short, automatic answers. Before living in Turkey I did encounter instances of foreign language mutism in myself but it was definitely not on such an impossible and frustrating level. If there can be any positives to take away from this experience of personal failure, I know how to make people who have a tendency to mutism when speaking English comfortable and how to get them speaking when normally they can’t say a word. When this has happened in the past it has been immensely fulfilling to give another person the gift of speech over mutism. It’s a wonderful gift and I wish I could give it to myself so I could speak foreign languages too!

In terms of my own voice and speaking skills, this is something that continues to evolve. Whereas I used to be motivated to eliminate my personal speech difficulties so I did not have to face them anymore, now I am much more accepting of what makes my own speech unique. This is also shown in that nowadays I am much more compelled towards being authentic rather than perfect in the way that I present myself in videos. My view is that with persistence speech difficulties can be overcome and triumphed over, though not all of the battles we face are worth the strain of a long, hard fight. So I recommend that you choose your battles wisely.

And lastly, I hope that as a teacher I fill you with knowledge, make you think, and give you inspiration to speak.

Introducing you to Dan from Improve Your Social Skills. Dan is a social skills coach for people overcoming social awkwardness.


QUESTION ONE

Jade: You describe yourself as being the ‘most socially awkward kid’ you could meet when you were growing up. Is this the same thing as being shy? If not, how are shyness and social anxiety different in your opinion?


Dan:
I think there’s a difference between shyness and awkwardness. In my opinion, shyness means that being social makes you nervous, or you find it unpleasant in some way. Social awkwardness means that you’re not very good at social interaction. Of course, the two often overlap, but it’s possible for someone to have one but not the other. For instance, you might find social interaction anxiety-producing, but you can interact just fine — in that case, you would be shy but not awkward. Or you might love talking to other people, but you constantly do and say the wrong thing — in that case, you would be awkward but not shy.

That being said, I don’t think these words are all that helpful to describe people. If you say “I’m shy” or “I’m awkward”, it can be a negative label that you’re putting on yourself. It’s better to say things like “I’m feeling shy right now” or “That was an awkward conversation.” Don’t label yourself with these words — use them to label your experiences.

(Of course, it’s okay to use these words if they don’t feel negative to you — I sometimes describe my past self as “awkward”, but that doesn’t make my current self feel bad in any way.)

QUESTION TWO

Jade: If you could go back in time to speak to your younger, socially awkward self, what would you say?

Dan: It gets better. It’s not your fault. You will find friends who accept you just as you are. Don’t give up.

QUESTION THREE

Jade: On your blog you state that the reason for your extreme social awkwardness when you were younger was because you have Asperger’s Syndrome. You said that getting diagnosed with Asperger’s was a positive, life-changing moment for you. Why did getting a diagnosis help you so much along your journey?

Dan: Asperger’s helped me understand why I was struggling socially. Before my Asperger’s diagnosis, I just thought there was something wrong with me. Like I thought I was just a really unlikable person, and that’s why nobody seemed to enjoy spending time with me.

But after I received my diagnosis, I realized that there was nothing inherently wrong with me. It’s just that I had never learned social skills, because Asperger’s had prevented me from picking them up naturally. In other words, I had the power to fix my social problems — I just needed to learn the skills I was lacking.

And that was a huge turning point for me, because now I had a plan. I could deliberately study social skills. I could spend time practicing the things I had learned.

The psychologist Carol Dweck talks about this idea of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their ability is fixed, and there’s no way to get better at something. People with a growth mindset believe that they can get better, and even if they’re bad at something today, they can get really good at it if they keep practicing.

And my Asperger’s diagnosis was the thing that switched me over to a growth mindset. I used to think “I’m just really bad socially, and I’m doomed to always be that way.” But when I received my diagnosis, I started to think “I’m bad socially, but if I study these skills, I’ll get better.” This was a huge shift.

QUESTION FOUR

Jade: Of everything you have learnt about social skills over the last 10 years, what skill do you think is the most important thing for socially anxious people to learn?

Dan: You are probably much more critical of yourself than other people are of you. It’s very common for anxious people to make a small mistake and then beat themselves up about it for a long time. The fact is, everyone makes social mistakes. The main difference is that non-anxious people shrug off the mistakes and get right back into the conversation, whereas anxious people let the mistake derail them.

Of course, it’s one thing to say “Just don’t worry about it” — it’s quite another to actually do that. So if you are socially anxious, I recommend that you consider seeing a professional therapist. Therapists are usually quite good at helping you combat your anxiety and learn to not blow your social mistakes out of proportion.

You can also try to fight the anxiety by doing just a tiny bit more than you normally would. So if you would normally leave a conversation right after you make your first mistake, try leaving the conversation after the second mistake, instead. If you would normally say no to a party invitation, try going to the party and leaving after 30 minutes. You don’t have to go all-in. Just do a bit more than you would normally, and your anxiety will start to lose its power.

QUESTION FIVE

Jade: You have written a guide called ‘Improve Your Social Skills‘ – who should read it and why?

Dan: I start my book with my manifesto. And I realize that sounds kind of weird — like normally we associate manifestos with Karl Marx, or with crazy guys that live in the woods. But that’s not my kind of manifesto. My manifesto is the core of why I wrote the book. It’s the things that I fervently believe. It’s the things I wrote the book to share. And so I guess if you read my manifesto and it moves you, if something in you says “Yes!” to the manifesto, then my book is for you. You can read my manifesto here.

Of course, if my manifesto doesn’t move you, you can still buy my book, and you’ll probably benefit from the skills you learn there 🙂 But the person I had in mind as I wrote it is someone who really needs to hear the words of my manifesto.


Thanks for the interview Dan 🙂 Check out Dan’s website to view his articles and videos about social skills topics. CLICK HERE.