The Art of Small Talk

About a month ago, I sat in on Jacob's 17th and last ever IEP.  He's all set to graduate with a diploma this spring, and by all accounts, everything is on track. He’s showing up on time to all of his classes, he completes all of his homework on his own, he actively participates in classroom discussions, and he has a peer group to which he connects at school.. He’s volunteering in the library to complete his community service hours, and he just stared his third Workability job, a repeat of the same job he had last year at Best Buy organizing and stocking shelves.

One area that I know Jacob still has difficulty is making initial connections to others. He has friends at school, but he has not made any meaningful relationships with his supervisor or the coworkers at his Best Buy job.  Even  though this may not seem like a big deal considering how well everything else is going, this is a very important skill that Jacob will need to develop in order to successfully transition to independence.  I know for me, work was always more than just a paycheck.  It was also the place where I developed meaningful friendships.  When I started a job, I wasn’t usually acquainted anyone, but I learned how to start and engage in conversations which became the catalyst for the development of deeper friendships. Had I not been able to do this, I never would have developed the network of friends that I eventually made.

And how did these friendships start?  With small talk.  When meeting someone for the first time, we don't usually start off discussing anything like politics or whether or not we support the death penalty. The first conversation usually starts with a “How are you today?”, or "I like that jacket.  Where did you get it?” We don't usually go into detail about our special interests either, which many people with autism do because it's easier for them to control a conversation about something they are well-versed as opposed to having to respond in the moment to what the other person communicates.  Talking about something trivial is a way to get the ball rolling so we can gauge if we share anything in common or have a common bond. It sets the stage to get to know the other person better and if all goes well, a deeper, more meaningful friendship has the possibility to develop.

So what happens when you have difficulty talking about nothing important? What occurs when you are unable to “think on the fly” and need to react to the person in the moment based on new information or non-verbal cues? How can you possibly expect to make the friendship connection when you don’t even know how to start the first conversation?  When you can't do this, you can’t develop friends or allies in the workplace, and this puts you’re at a big disadvantage in keeping your job.

This is a big reason why individuals with autism have such a high unemployment rate. Even when a person is able to get the job, the ability to keep it depends a lot on the social networks that are made in the workplace. If you don’t make a connection with your supervisor, promotions are pretty much non-existent and any type of mentoring opportunity is lost. If you’re co-workers don’t have your back, they won’t cover for you when you need it or worse, they’ll try to get you fired.  Something as simple as not saying hi to someone when you first thing in the morning can be upsetting or can make your co-worker think you're rude.  And once this happens, a bad reputation can easily spread and others won't like you either.

So for Jacob’s very last IEP, the most important goal we developed was the ability to make small talk. Jacob is very lucky that he has a good team IEP. The plan we all made with Jacob was that his teachers would engage in simple conversations so he could practice making small talk. The speech therapist was going to be consulting with his teachers to see how it was going, and Jacob was going to start with cue cards to help him come up with topics to kick off the conversation. 

We'll see how it goes.  I've seen a lot of progress with Jacob, and it's easy to feel complacent to see how far he has come.  But I know the statistics for young adults just like Jacob are really bleak, and the future won't be so bright unless he's able to keep job and develop friendships in the workplace.  So I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.


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