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Psychemagination

Journey into the Psyche

Navigating Social Interactions for Adults with ADHD and Autism: Practical Tips


Navigating social interactions for adults with ADHD and autism (ASD) can be uniquely challenging. While autism is a neurobiological ‘wiring’ that affects social skill development, individuals with ADHD often understand social norms but struggle to adhere to them consistently[1]. These neurodivergent profiles can lead to communication differences and behavioural challenges that impact day-to-day interactions[1].

people with ADHD and autism in a social setting

As someone with both ADHD and autism, the exploration of practical tips for enhancing social interactions has been a big part of my life. In this article I delve into understanding these conditions in social contexts, look at the common challenges faced and strategic approaches to navigate social settings effectively. Highlighting the role of self-awareness and self-care, I share strategies for improving social skills and fostering supportive relationships. Though our challenges don’t go away, with understanding and practice, adults with ADHD and autism can thrive in their social lives, in both personal and professional relationships[1].

Understanding ADHD and Autism in Social Contexts

Living with ADHD and autism, I’ve experienced firsthand the complexities these conditions introduce, particularly in social environments. Autism is fundamentally a neurobiological difference to the norm (neurotypical) where expected social skills development is markedly different.

People like me might struggle with basic social interactions due to challenges such as making appropriate eye contact, limited facial expressions, and difficulties in understanding social cues [1]. These symptoms can manifest early in life, sometimes as early as six months, profoundly affecting social engagement throughout childhood and into adulthood [1].

ADHD introduces another layer of complexity in social contexts. While autistic individuals might find it hard to grasp social norms intuitively, those with ADHD usually understand these norms but fail to consistently apply them due to distractibility, impulsivity, and off-task behaviour [1]. This can result in missing subtle social cues, which are often critical in smooth social interactions. Moreover, ADHD can lead to communication challenges like being overly talkative, straying off-topic, or interrupting others, which complicates social interactions further [1].

Social skills training for those with both ADHD and autism, therefore, needs to address both the intuitive deficits in understanding social scenarios typical of autism and the executive functioning challenges seen in ADHD.

Challenges in Social Interactions for Adults with ADHD and Autism

  1. Communication and Perception Difficulties
  2. Adults with autism often face challenges with language pragmatics, such as initiating or following conversations and interpreting non-verbal cues [1]. This includes difficulties in reading facial expressions, understanding tone and humour, and managing non-literal language like sarcasm or idioms [7].

    I often literally have no idea what people are trying to say or if they are serious or not. 
  3. For those with ADHD, maintaining focus during conversations can be tough, especially if you’re also gifted and your brain is moving so fast that you already can see where the conversation is going and so you’re way ahead, already forming your response for when the person gets to finish their point. We may miss crucial social cues or appear disinterested because of inattention or distractibility [13]. This often leads to misunderstandings or perceived lack of empathy. 
  4. Social Engagement and Behavioural Challenges
  5. People with autism might exhibit less motivation for social interactions, which can manifest as difficulty in starting or maintaining conversations. They may also struggle with making and maintaining eye contact or talking about topics outside of their specific interests [7].

    I don’t have much motivation for social interaction, and though I can make eye contact, it’s only because I’ve learned to, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. And I find the usual kind of chit chat engaged in in social situations to be pretty uninteresting. Making occasional eye contact isn’t too hard for me, so I do do it. But people who know I’m autistic don’t expect it, and aren’t offended if I don’t do it, so I can drop that one when with them.
  6. Adults with ADHD might experience impulsivity and hyperactivity, which can negatively impact social interactions. Common in people with ADHD (me included) is rapid and excessive speech, difficulty ‘reading between the lines,’ and difficulty in adapting behaviour to different social contexts. This can lead to social awkwardness at best and misunderstandings at worst [12].
  7. Developing and Maintaining Relationships
  8. The ability to form and sustain friendships is often hampered in adults with ASD due to challenges like seeming blunt or uninterested, difficulty expressing feelings, and adhering to specific routines that may lead to anxiety if changed [10].
  9. Similarly, adults with ADHD face hurdles in relationship maintenance due to poor listening skills, frequent interruptions during conversations, and mood regulation problems [11]. These issues can make social interactions draining and lead to a cycle of social rejection and isolation [12].

This has been my personal experience and it’s lead to a life characterised by social rejection. This was distressing as a child and young adult, and I eventually dealt with it by withdrawing from or minimising social situations. I’m fine with that because I have a partner with whom I can be myself, and I am very happy with my own company, but until you find at least one good relationship, it can be quite distressing. The important thing to know is that none of these characteristic makes someone with ADHD or autism a bad person. It took me a long time to realise that. I’m just different. And put me in a room of other neurodivergent people and I have no problem at all.

Common Social Challenges for Adults with ADHD and Autism

Impulsivity and Hyperactivity Challenges

I tried for decades to moderate the following tendencies. I knew I had to in order to effectively engage socially. I tried very hard, and I can manage to put a lid on them for short periods of time, but it’s still a struggle. I now know the ongoing struggle is not because I’m an awful person, but because of the way my brain is wired.

  1. Interrupting Conversations: Individuals with ADHD often interrupt or finish others’ sentences, which can disrupt the natural flow of dialogue and lead to misunderstandings [13].

    I do this because I know where their sentence is going, they seem to take so long to get there, and I’m excited for the next part of the conversation to get going. I have to constantly reign in the urge to do so and often catch myself only after I’ve interrupted. In which case, I apologise, and that seems to smooth things over. 
  2. Excessive Talking: Talking excessively and acting without thinking are common traits in ADHD, impacting the ability to engage in balanced social exchanges [13].

    If I get excited about the topic of conversation, I want to share everything I know about it – see the Imagining chapter of Psychemagination for how that played out in my life – because all of it is interesting to me, so I figure it will also be interesting to others.
    However, I’ve learned that mostly it’s not that interesting to others – unless they are also neurodivergent – so I’m always either cutting myself off from saying more or asking if I’m oversharing or apologising for doing so. There doesn’t seem to be any way around this. My tendency to overshare doesn’t grow less with time. It’s just how it is if I’m interacting with neurotypical people, and it takes a lot of energy, so I have learned how to leave.

    ‘Okay, everyone, I have to go now. Bye,’ I’ll say in small gatherings. And in large ones – which I avoid anyway – I just slip away.
  3. Intrusive Behaviour: Joining activities unasked or at inappropriate times and intruding on personal space are behaviours noted in individuals with ADHD, making social boundaries difficult to navigate [13].

    I still don’t know when this kind of thing is appropriate or not; even if I ask myself first and think it through, I can get it wrong, so I don’t join in unless asked … and no one does that overtly because somehow people are supposed to know that they’re included without being told.

    If it’s someone I know well, I might ask (quietly) if it’s okay if I join.

Inattention and Its Social Impacts

  1. Poor Listening Skills: Not actively listening or becoming distracted mid-conversation are significant challenges for those with ADHD, often leading to the breakdown of communication in social settings [13].

    I have learned active listening, and I practice it quite affectively. The practice of actively listening gives me something on which to focus during social interactions so it works quite well. It does take a lot of focus, however and that can be tiring. Hence, I keep social engagements short. 
  2. Forgetting Social Commitments: Experiencing time blindness and forgetting to return phone calls or attend social events can strain relationships and social reliability [13].

    I still forget things even though they’re written on my calendar! A physical calendar works better that a digital one if it’s where I can easily see it and refer to it daily. The very act of writing it down helps. 

    As for returning calls: I make an effort to do so immediately. That way I don’t forget and I don’t have to write it on a list to do later. 
  3. Task Incompletion: Leaving tasks unfinished or carelessly done not only affects personal productivity but also how individuals with ADHD are perceived in professional and social circles [13].

    This isn’t an issue for me personally, because one of my autistic traits is that I must finish whatever I’m doing. The downside of this is that I may carry on working on something in order to finish it before I can start on making the family dinner or something else that impacts others. My family understands, however.

Autism-Specific Social Challenges

  1. Early Social Interaction Issues: Signs of autism like poor eye contact and limited facial expressions can appear as early as six months, affecting a child’s ability to engage in social play and respond to social cues [1].

    As you’ll see if your read the Growing chapter or watch the video, I never played well with others and never had many friends.
  2. Communication Delays: Challenges such as delays in language development (my language skills were advanced, so this wasn’t an issue for me), difficulty in processing information (I had no problem with written information, only with information given in conversation), and struggling to understand non-verbal communication cues are prevalent in autism, complicating social interactions from an early age [1].

    Non-verbal cues are something I’ve learned to read, but I still miss or misinterpret some. The kind of language skills that still challenge me are an aversion to chit chat and trying to work out what people are actually trying to say when they aren’t direct. I have no problems with written material, however. Every autistic person is different. 
  3. Behavioural Manifestations: Repetitive physical motions and rigid thinking patterns are behaviour challenges in autism that can make social interactions unpredictable and stressful for the individual and their peers [1].

    Engaging in repetitive physical motions is known as ‘stimming’ and it’s an important role in emotional regulation for autistic people, so it’s important that we do allow ourselves to stim. People really just have to learn to accept this one. I found a relatively socially acceptable stim in moving my hands constantly – mostly finger flicking – and I also allow myself to rock from side to side (back and forward freaks people out, but most manage to handle side to side). Social situations are stressful, so trying not to stim is really counterproductive as it takes away something that eases that stress. 

Navigating Social Interactions for Adults with ADHD and Autism

Navigating social settings effectively is a challenge for us people who have ADHD and/or autism, no matter how long we’ve been practicing and how well-developed our skills – at least that’s my experience – but here are some practical steps and strategies you can try:

Join Supportive Communities

  1. Search for Support Groups: Engage with local or online support groups where you can develop social skills alongside others who face similar challenges [15].
  2. Participate in Like-Minded Groups: Whether it’s a hobby club or a professional network, joining groups with similar interests can provide a comfortable environment to practice social skills [15].
  3. Explore Learning Social Skills in a Group Setting: Learning new skills in a group setting not only diversifies your abilities but also increases interactions with new people, fostering both personal and professional growth [15].

Utilize Professional Help

  1. Find a Counselling Service where a professional can help you build the essential social skills needed for creating meaningful relationships [15]. If cost is a preventative factor, I’m sure there are plenty of books on the topic of improving social skills. 
  2. Consult Healthcare Professionals: If social anxiety limits your interactions, discussing this with a GP or a counsellor can provide strategies to manage these feelings effectively [16].

Finding and Nurturing Supportive Relationships

Everyone wants some kind of close relationship, and people with autism and ADHD are no different to anyone else in that regard, it’s just a little harder for us to find the people who will accept us as we are. I’ve found the following things helpful as guides for nurturing relationships be they new or old.

Emphasize Communication and Understanding

  1. Prioritize Open Communication: Using “I-statements” to express feelings and concerns helps in facilitating open and honest dialogue. Listening actively to your partner’s thoughts and working collaboratively to find solutions can significantly enhance mutual understanding [20].
  2. Recognize and Value Each Other’s Strengths: Focusing on each other’s abilities rather than limitations fosters a positive atmosphere. Sharing tasks based on individual strengths can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling relationship [20].
  3. Be Patient and Compassionate: Patiently educating people so they understand that the traits that come with ADHD and autism are conditions and not choices is crucial to developing a deep relationship. Patience and empathy goes a long way in strengthening relationships [20].

Establish Boundaries and Self-Care

  1. Set Clear Boundaries: Establishing and respecting personal boundaries is essential for maintaining a healthy relationship. Clear communication about limits and expectations helps prevent misunderstandings and ensures that both partners feel respected [20].

    For instance, those with autism and ADHD need alone time, and so our friends and partners need to know they can’t expect us to always be available for them.
  2. Self-Care is Crucial: Maintaining your own mental and emotional health is vital. Engaging in personal hobbies, maintaining friendships, and seeking professional counselling when needed are all important aspects of self-care that can improve overall relationship quality with yourself and others [20].

The Role of Self-Awareness and Self-Care

Living with ADHD and autism, I’ve come to understand the pivotal role of self-awareness in managing everyday interactions and personal well-being. Self-awareness helps us recognize our own emotions, behaviours, and the social cues we encounter, which is especially crucial given the varied spectrum of awareness in autism [22][2]. For instance, while some individuals with autism may have a keen sense of self-awareness, others might find this more challenging, affected by factors like cognitive development and the age at which they were diagnosed [2].

Moreover, self-care emerges as a fundamental practice that supports our physical, emotional, and mental health, playing a significant role in managing symptoms of ADHD and autism [22]. Developing regular self-care routines not only fosters greater independence and resilience but also directly impacts our ability to engage socially and professionally. For those of us with ADHD, cultivating self-compassion is particularly beneficial, as studies have shown that adults with ADHD who practice self-compassion tend to experience better mental health outcomes compared to those who do not [23].

Final words

I hope you have found this combination of AI-assisted research along with my personal experience helpful. If I were asked to give any essential advice for a young person with ADHD and or autism, I would say ‘Don’t try to fit in with others, because you never will, so trying will just lead to disappointment and a potential loss of your sense of who you are. You’ll always be different to neurotypical people, and that’s okay. That’s just how you are. Embrace your difference and others will be more able to do so as well. Social skills are just a set of skills you learn, like riding a bike; they’re to help you engage effectively in social situations, that’s all; they’re not about changing who you are or trying to make yourself likable.’

And now, please do take a look at my audio-visual webbook Psychemagination: Journey into the Psyche, a self-reflective memoir of a late-diagnosed autistic woman.


I created the artwork by using the Midjourney AI art generator.

References

[1] – https://www.additudemag.com/autism-and-adhd/
[2] – https://www.abtaba.com/blog/autistic-people-know-theyre-autistic
[3] – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6311999/
[4] – https://www.kennedykrieger.org/stories/interactive-autism-network-ian/challenging-behaviors
[5] – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/nurturing-connections-maintaining-friendships-relationships-pq4ue
[6] – https://literarytitan.com/2024/01/21/nurturing-neurodivergence-the-late-identified-adults-guide-to-building-healthy-relationships-with-self-and-others/
[7] – https://thespectrum.org.au/autism-strategy/social-interaction/
[8] – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9913618/
[9] – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-023-04499-z
[10] – https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/autism-and-adhd-together-in-adults
[11] – https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-make-friends-when-you-have-adhd-20402
[12] – https://chadd.org/for-adults/relationships-social-skills/
[13] – https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/adhd-social-skills
[14] – https://medium.com/the-orange-journal/the-unique-struggles-of-having-both-autism-and-adhd-83c7f3d25a54
[15] – https://chicagocounselingandtherapy.com/building-meaningful-relationships-nurturing-social-connections-for-autistic-adults/
[16] – https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/family-life-and-relationships/making-friends/autistic-adults
[17] – https://www.autismspeaks.org/social-skills-and-autism
[18] – https://positivepsychology.com/social-skills-training/
[19] – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01612840.2023.2234477
[20] – https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/dating-someone-with-adhd
[21] – https://add.org/six-secrets-to-a-happy-adhd-relationship/
[22] – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-way-adhd/202202/adhd-and-self-awareness
[23] – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9790285/

"Without some goals and some efforts to reach it, no man can live." - John Dewey
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