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Autism & College: Build Your Social Confidence Levels

Autism, social language, college, and workforce development. Contributor Katie Newton shares research on the benefits of developing “soft skills” for all students. You can build your social confidence across a lot of common interactions. Katie explores how autistic students who are natural introverts and prefer a lot of “alone time” can still be savvy decision-makers when it comes to working on some necessary skills for jobs and careers. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not. You CAN build your social confidence and flexibility in ways that will support your job search and professional well-being. 

Social language foundations can be practiced in structured, social-group settings or with individualized therapy. However, by the time you reach later high school and college years, there are more effective ways to target these skills. The classes you take, the types of clubs/groups you join, and how you spend your days can all contribute to more flexibility and confidence in social situations.

Social Language Foundations Overview

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) summarizes the components of social communication as being part of a multifaceted model. Social communication encompasses skills transferable to the work setting such as conflict resolution, social reasoning, navigating power relationships, and modifying language for cultural nuances. ASHA also outlines the important basal cognitive and language skills important for social communication with neurotypical communication partners. These skills range from shifting gaze, using an applicable discourse script, and changing speech style to meet the type of conversation, to modulating vocal volume and being concise but relevant, for example.

All of these skills hinge on having adept theory of mind as defined as the “ability to connect emotional states to self and others; understanding that others have knowledge, desires, and emotions that may differ from one’s own; ability to take the perspective of another and modify language use accordingly” (ASHA, 2016). It is a common misconception that autistic students lack theory of mind, and that’s not true. As Editorial Board Member Sara Sanders Gardner and other contributors have noted, it’s more accurate to say that both autistic and neurotypical students struggle to understand each other’s “mind” or perspective. Because we know that, by and large, autistic students will study and find employment alongside a greater percentage of neurotypical peers, working on flexibility and confidence in social situations can support long-term goals for many autistic college students.

In fact, in college, most students work on skills such as increasing perspective taking, developing empathy, and expanding their worldview. And, as an autistic student, you will be doing the same. In the workforce, these skills are often defined as “soft skills.” Additionally, research on the general career population shows that gaining competence with these skills can reap benefits for your future job placement and overall fulfillment. In fact, soft skills have been linked to better adaptability, diversity, and engagement in employees, all of which are highly desirable for employers (Doyle, 2019). This is because working on teams, negotiating deals and contracts, problem-solving, and being engaged with your workplace community are inevitable in almost any field. These are a few examples of when social flexibility and confidence will amplify your work life and most likely impact your general well-being.

Against Immediate Specialization

Though becoming highly specialized in a major may seem like an obvious route to pursue for post-college success, “the reality is that learning highly-transferable soft skills may be just as, if not more, lucrative and set you up better for the future; the increasing complexity of tasks, such as programming and algorithms, does not require additional interpersonal skills, such as coordination and teamwork.” (Makridis, 2018). Basic interpersonal communication skills actually might matter more in the hiring process and help with people’s positive sense of you as a coworker. Just how can you work on that? Start by not narrowing your field of study right away. Try out different types of classes. Talk to your advisor about whether you can take one class per year or semester that is unrelated to your degree as an elective.

Analysis of current census bureau data by Christos A. Makridis “showed that liberal arts students who take on a second degree in a STEM field earned, on average, 9.5 percent more than their liberal arts peers with only one major, after controlling for individual demographic factors, such as age, years of schooling, marital status, gender, family size, and race. Students who combined a liberal arts degree with a business major earned 7.9 percent more.” According to similar research, students who expose themselves to more frames of thinking through a variety of classes and disciplinary knowledge may well be investing in the very foundation that prepares them for a successful and innovative career. Dual-major students “are more apt than their single-majoring peers to think both integratively and creatively,” often leading to higher paying outcomes because of their better work competency (Berrett, 2013).

Taking courses of study outside of one’s primary focus helps increase social language skills such as cognitive empathy, seeing two sides of a debate, and shifting attention, all of which can lead towards workplace success. This outcome is not only seen when adding a business or STEM major to one’s diploma, either. Research conducted in 2011 found that any double major, on average, yields greater percent earnings over a peer with only one degree (Makridis, 2018). This means that autistic students can work on soft skills in the context of a varied caseload, in addition to other avenues they may choose. This might be especially helpful for students with autism who have anxiety in social situations.

Other Ways to Work on Soft Skills

If pursuing two degrees feels overwhelming, don’t assume you need to double major or add classes to build your skills. Another channel to pursue is interning or volunteering at companies. See how different workplaces flow and how different types of management can be utilized to run a company. You might learn some tips on how to speak to and work under different types of bosses from current employees. Second, “use every relationship as an opportunity to learn the way someone else thinks” (Makridis, 2018). Does your lab partner problem solve the same way you do? How do different students’ family lives impact how they live and function in a dorm setting? What you learn can inform your understanding and actions is a variety of situations.

Additionally, attend events on campus that are outside of your typical areas of interest. This can be done strategically and with careful planning if this is out of your comfort zone. Look ahead to your campus calendar for an event that sounds interesting to you and prepare for what you might encounter. As you expose yourself to more and more areas and ways of thinking that are outside your normal routine, you’ll increase your ability to hear and understand other people’s perspectives and points of view.

When making a presentation or attending a job fair, practice acting the part – wear the clothes that fit the professional standards for the field, turn up on time, look at or near the crowd or conversation partner. Think about why aspects such as timeliness and connecting to your communication partners are important indicators for future work performance and what your actions and presentation style might be conveying to the audience. Ask yourself whether you felt more confident and in control knowing what sort of image you are portraying.

Also, never be afraid to ask for help. You might ask a friend or roommate’s opinion on your outfit, or you could schedule a time to chat about an upcoming interview at your college’s job resources office. Becoming adept at thinking about and targeting a known audience is a rehearsal in perspective taking in itself. For example, you might ask yourself: what information do they already know versus what information will I be sharing that is new? As a challenge, ask for feedback afterward.

Research looking at connections between social strategies used at college and coping with work-related challenges conducted by Salmela-Aro (Nauert, 2018) found “social optimism [an active, positive social approach and sense of community] during university studies translates into a high level of work engagement up to 10-15 years after the study-to-work transition. On the other hand, pessimism and social avoidance seem to increase the likelihood of work burnout and exhaustion.” So-called “soft skills” might be the most important in facilitating a successful college to work transition. By building positive social relationships while on campus, you will feel more confident doing so in the future.

Remember, being introverted or needing alone time doesn’t mean you should avoid developing social language competence.

Conclusion

If you feel most comfortable communicating with your professor via email, practice asking teachers for recommendations or for meeting times in person. You’ll gain confidence in your in-person communication skills and you might build a stronger rapport by being in their office with them. Practice asking peers to meet in groups rather than online. See if you can pinpoint where social anxiety is coming from if any, and talk to a mental health professional. Plus, if you have disclosed to a receptive instructor, they may be willing to spend extra time with you in office hours building confidence and flexibility in less familiar situations.

Remember, being introverted or needing alone time doesn’t mean you should avoid developing social language competence. As CEO and career mentor Caren Merrick writes, “Great communicators aren’t born — they work at it. Learning new skills doesn’t mean denying your introvert qualities, or being someone you’re not. It builds confidence for the variety of unavoidable situations you encounter. Every single person in the workplace would do well to invest in improving their communications, whether they are introverts or extroverts” (Merrick, 2016). Find the right balance that works for you, and you’ll soon be finding ways to add in social language learning opportunities in your college setting!

Questions or comments for Katie? Let her know in the comments.

You Might Also Like:

Autism and Socializing

An Introduction for Autistic Students: the Social Dynamics of College and University Classrooms

Socializing in STEM Classes and Careers, Part One: Insight for Autistic Students

Autistic and Looking for Social Connections on Campus? Join a Club!

 

SOURCES:

Berrett, Dan. “Double Majors Produce Dynamic Thinkers, Study Finds.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Mar 2013. http://chronicle.com

“Components of Social Language,” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2016, www.asha.org/uploadedFiles/ASHA/Practice_Portal/Clinical_Topics/

Social_Communication_Disorders_in_School-Age_Children/Components-of-Social-Communication.pdf.

Doyle, Alison. “What are Soft Skills” The Balance Careers. 4 Feb 2019. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-are-soft-skills-2060852

Makridis, Christos. “Learn Social Skills, Not STEM, to Improve Your Career.” Zak Slayback, 4 Apr. 2018, zakslayback.com/learning-social-skills-not-stem-will-improve-career/.

Matthews, Katie. “Socializing In Stem Classes and Careers.” Stairway to Stem. 1 Jan 2019. https://www.stairwaytostem.org/socializing-in-stem-classes-and-careers-part-one-insight-for-autistic-students/

Merrick, Caren. “An Introvert’s Guide to Communicating With Results.” Entrepreneur. 28 July 2016. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/274655.

Nauert, Nick. “Learning Social Skills in College Helps Predict Work Career Success.” Psych Central. 8 Aug 2018. https://psychcentral.com/news/2011/03/01/learning-social-skills-in-college-helps-predict-work-career-success/23991.html

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Katie Newton

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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