ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

    ASA Homepage
Saturday, July 15, 2006: 12:15 PM-1:30 PM
Narragansett Ballroom C
#2000- Keeping Ourselves Safe: Strategies for Coping with Social Danger
Inadvertently running right into social trouble is a common theme in our lives as adults on the spectrum. Both women and men tell stories about trusted teachers, friends, coworkers, bosses, officials, and even partners taking advantage of them in very similar ways. This workshop explores and then addresses the reasons why we are at greater risk than the general population and provides strategies and techniques participants can use to stay safe.

Presenter:Zosia Zaks, M.S.Technical, Journalism, Writer; President of Intelligirl, Inc.; Autism Consultant - Zosia Zaks has Asperger Syndrome. She consults with autistic adults and parents of autistic children to develop concrete techniques and strategies for life based on autistic strengths. She writes for various autism magazines and websites and speaks at numerous autism conferences. Her first book, Life and Love on the Spectrum: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults, is due out in 2006. Additionally, she serves on the Advisory Board of GRASP. Zosia runs her own design-it-yourself virtual jewelry making website, Intelligirl Jewelry Maker. She is married and lives with her wife and two daughters just outside of New York City.
Autistic people are at greater risk for social danger because of the special ways we think and process our emotions. We tend to be trusting - why would someone lie? We also have difficulty decoding social language and the clues that could warn of danger or another person's malicious intentions. It may be difficult to generalize safety concepts to situations we view as unique. It may also be difficult to make social decisions, which are usually open-ended with unclear consequences. Lastly, we may also have difficulty interpreting our own feelings and motives, which can lead to poor, slow, or ineffective reactions and vulnerability to unscrupulous people.

This workshop aims to provide participants with knowledge, skills, and strategies to keep safe. It is impossible to prevent every type of social problem. But by learning certain skills and using certain techniques, autistic adults will improve their chances of avoiding social danger.

The opening part of the workshop teaches participants how to get help. How participants can avail themselves of the help that emergency responders provide is described first. It may not be obvious to an autistic person all the ways a police officer or fireman can help when trouble arises. Sensory issues with alarms and equipment can impede the emergency process. Autistic people may also not know how to respond to emergency personnel. For example, police orders to "Stop!" may be interpreted literally, with the autistic person stopping in his tracks with his back still to the officer, when in fact the correct action is to turn around and face the officer, raise hands in the air, and then stop moving. Tactics like touring the police station in advance, using an emergency card to provide responders with important information about autism, and carrying an emergency tool kit are discussed in detail.

Participants also learn how to ask others for help. Instructions on when to turn to others, what to turn to others about, and how to solicit advice are outlined. How to figure out who to trust and how to create a group of Helpers in advance is discussed next. Lastly, what not to talk about is also explained.

In the second part of the workshop, specific safety techniques are described. Participants learn how to create and use a Safe Activities List, how to List Your Maybes, a how to develop and use a Buddy System. These techniques allow an autistic person to participate in social life, if desired, without falling into dangerous activities. Relying on the general autistic preference for lists and rules to guide behavior instead of relying on the usual nonverbal clues and social subtleties, autistic people will be better prepared to accept or decline social invitations and to join or avoid social activities.

The third section of the workshop deals with improving emotional communication as an important part of the social decision making process. How to determine feelings using a signal chart is explained. Corresponding emotions to specific actions and rules is also explained.

The fourth section describes other techniques and tips such as learning self-defense and learning to pretend or lie to get out of danger that can help participants enjoy a safe social life. Differentiating media from reality is also discussed in detail to ground participants in a firm knowledge of what social exchanges are healthy, expected, typical, "normal", or acceptable, versus those which are not. From watching TV, one might get the impression that it is perfectly fine to have an affair with a stranger you meet and like at a club or some other venue. But this is not true in real life. Using Carol Gray's Comic Strip technique is also explained as a tool for decoding social exchanges.

The last section focuses on issues that are important to men too but specifically address women's additional concerns. For example, it is important that when setting up support meetings and social clubs the autistic community take into consideration how dangerous it might be for a woman to take public transportation to the event, especially if it is held at night or in a bad neighborhood. It is also not acceptable to pressure women to disclose their contact information for a contact list that may be disseminated to the general membership. Meetings should be free of social pressure for those autistic men and women who may be vulnerable to romantic overtures or sexual suggestion.

Many women have children, and this includes autistic women. Because the court system can be incredibly discriminatory toward disabled parents, especially if additional factors such as being gay, poor, or divorced are mixed into the equation, special care should be taken to avoid accidental or unwanted to disclosure. Women may not know they have the right to refuse being photographed, videotaped, or interviewed, or they may not know how to ask someone to stop recording them.

Lastly, autistic women are unfortunately at greater risk for sexual violence. It is important that both autistic men and women know their rights to refuse romantic and social contact. It is also important that autistic people understand what behaviors are absolutely prohibited, which are severely discouraged by society, and which behaviors are annoying but not illegal or immoral. This information will help participants understand how to gauge social dangers they encounter and how to monitor and control their own behavior.

In conclusion, this workshop will provide participants with a basic amount of social knowledge and skills they need to navigate the social world, typically a minefield of danger for those unable to decode and process social language with facility. Again, because all people on the spectrum will encounter social situations every single day, the goal is to enable autistic adults across the spectrum to stay as safe as possible, reducing what appears, at least anecdotally, to be an epidemic of social trouble.

See more of The ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)