Applied Behavioral Analysis’s simplistic definition of social skills does both autistic people and the general public a disservice. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) taught me that social skills were context-free rules I had to follow: forcing my hands to be quiet, staring back at eyeballs that bored into mine, contorting myself to make myself look less autistic at the expense of my happiness and overall well-being. I wasn’t allowed to be who I was, so I didn’t see the benefit in making a good impression on other people.

I easily understood abstract concepts such as justice and equality as a child, but I didn’t understand social skills in the more conventional sense until my early adolescence. Had I been given a coherent narrative about the importance of social skills, I might have developed them more readily; as it was, my lessons seemed arbitrary and useless. It was assumed that I was constitutionally unable to understand context, and the only way to teach me appropriately was to treat me as a flesh-and-blood robot, superficially carrying out instructions I was not expected to comprehend.

Black-and-white photo of two young embracing Black children, one with a shaved head, light button up shirt, and dark pants, the other with a  white horizontal-striped tank dress and long box braids.
Two young embracing Black children.

For ABA practitioners, social skills are analogous to computer programs: we are merely to carry out the tasks without protest, and the execution of the program is what counts, not the values that make those programs necessary. All of us, autistic and non-autistic alike, must learn how to hone our social judgment through instruction and experience. Autistic people may need more guidance in interpreting social interactions than non-autistic people, but it is not impossible for us.

The written word has taught me more about social skills than all the quiet-hands admonitions I endured as a child. I was an early and enthusiastic reader, devouring every book, magazine, and newspaper I could get my hands on. Through my reading, I was exposed to the deeper aspects of social interaction: compassion, curiosity, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, consideration, generosity, fairness, equity. I could see others’ humanity even when my caregivers neglected to see mine.

When I learned how to write, I learned why social skills—in the broader sense, not in the paint-by-numbers ABA sense—mattered. After all, good writers must understand other people to be effective. This attention to written language allowed me to read social cues far more easily on the internet than I could in person, too. Online, I noticed people’s word choice, their attention to spelling and grammar, their punctuation, the speed of their responses. Were they more punctilious, using standard capitalization and ending every sentence with a period, or did they break the laws of English with a cheerful insouciance? As my ability to understand social cues improved online, my offline social abilities improved in turn. I discovered that revision, too, is a social skill: shaping prose, correcting errors, turning jargon and cant into understandable English, trimming sentences—all these are in service to the reader.

Changing “people with autism” and “people with mental deficiencies” to “autistic people” and “people with intellectual disabilities” shows respect for the people that the terms describe. Even the little things count: wrapping periods and commas inside the maternal embrace of quotation marks, spelling ‘all right’ as two words, turning the ungainly ‘impactful’ into ‘influential,’ appreciating the difference between the essential ‘that’ and the incidental ‘which’—remove distractions and allow readers to focus on the meaning of what you’ve written, not your spelling or punctuation. Readers may not notice all these small decisions, but they’ll see the result: clear, understandable writing without distracting errors or noninclusive language. Good usage is invisible; mistakes stand out and distract the reader. Although some may claim that style and word choice are secondary to the message, people will judge form as well as function.

Through reading and writing—through my loud hands flipping through pages or typing on a keyboard—I learned how to coexist with my peers, not merely to be indistinguishable from them.