Socializing in STEM Classes and Careers, Part Two: Practical Tips for Autistic Students

Socializing in STEM classes for autistic students. In Part I of this post, we heard from Dan Matthews, a Senior Hardware Engineer in Customer Technical Service. Having attended Central Connecticut State University for Mechanical Engineering Technology, he provided some useful insight into what it was like being a STEM student. He also shares what it is like working in a STEM field now. If you’re a STEM college student, how can you apply his insights to your own academic life? Read on for strategies about how to strike up a conversation with someone in a class environment and how to maintain these developing relationships. For example, you could  connect with classmates during times like lunch and other breaks. 

Making connections all starts with looking for a friendly face. Many STEM courses involve group projects and difficult homework assignments. As Dan said, having someone you already know in a class can make partnering up and working together much less intimidating. But how do you make that first connection?

Look for a familiar face. Do you recognize anyone from orientation, from another course, or from the library? Start by introducing yourself and reminding the person of where you might have seen them before. This will create a sense of familiarity. Joining groups on campus is a great way to increase your exposure to different students.

Find a mutual interest. Sure, you both must be somewhat interested in the college course you are in together, but can you find something else in common to chat about? Try asking about what they did for fun the previous weekend, where they grew up or currently live, or what type of music they are listening to. You will be able to tell pretty quickly if the person is receptive to your questions because they will answer with lengthier statements and ask you questions back. If they are giving you short one-word answers and looking away, they might not be interested in making a friend. I like to give other students the benefit of the doubt and assume they are also interested in making social connections in the classroom. If they do not look interested in talking, it’s very likely because of something else going on in their life and not necessarily something you said. Don’t be discouraged if a first or second attempt at reaching out fails—just look for the next opportunity.

Suggest a class-related way to get to know each other more. For example, if there is a partnered project coming up, mention that you are still looking for a partner. If there is a challenging problem set for homework, ask whether they would like to meet in the library to work on the problem set at the same time. As Dan mentioned, sometimes something as simple as one of you being stuck on an excel formula can be a way to help each other out. If you have two classes together and there is an open window around a mealtime, ask what their plans are. Maybe getting lunch together or sitting in the study lounge to eat will provide a natural way to hang out outside of class.

Know that most people like to talk about themselves, and aim for a balance in the conversation. Both people should talk about their interests. Make sure to ask the other person questions and show you are engaged. Making a follow up comment that then relates to yourself is a way for them to then get to know you. Then, they have an opportunity to ask their own questions in return.

Remember what the classmate has said in the past and bring it up the next time you see them. This is a concept similar to the idea of keeping a “friend file” in your brain. Friend files contain the important information about someone that you “pull up” to the front of your memory when you see them again. Did this friend mention they were going to a concert last week? Ask them how it was. Did they say they were planning on binge watching a season on Netflix? Let them know that you also watched an episode at their recommendation. If you forgot something about them, it’s okay to say that and ask again. People do not expect you to remember everything they said.

You can always be blunt. If you are having difficulty connecting with your classmates organically, don’t be afraid to be up front with them and let them know you are looking for a study buddy, a project partner, or someone to practice a presentation in front of. Sometimes people are more willing to help out when they know specifically what type of relationship you are looking for. Once you work on a project with someone, you are bound to get to know them a bit more, too.

Move the friendship to outside of the classroom setting. Once you’ve found that you have known someone for a while and you have areas of common interest outside of school, it is appropriate to ask whether they want to attend an event or hang out doing something other than class work. It’s a little like dating, but without the flirting. Building on these deeper connections outside of the school setting can be a powerful way to create lasting friendships that will not only bring you happiness but can end up aiding in networking and potential job opportunities in the future.

What other ways have you connected with classmates and formed connections? Let me know in the comments below!

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Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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