We all know the phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Each and every time a new member joins one of my social skills groups, we talk about first impressions and how behavior in both action and word impact how others think and feel about us. We talk about how first impressions are made automatically and immediately.
Unfortunately, I think these discussions have been a lot of hot air on my part.
A first impression is the outcome of:
- Reading facial expressions and body posture
- How someone talks – word selection, tone, fluency – as much as what this person actually says
- Assessing how this person is behaving around you and deciding if you want to be around someone who behaves in this manner
- Thinking about how this person would reflect upon you
- Looking at clothes, hairstyle, and other points of grooming to see if you believe they are up to your standard
- A reciprocal verbal and emotional exchange of thoughts and feelings
As I read this list, which is far from complete, I realize how many of these skills are so challenging for individuals with ASD. It leads to posit that perhaps individuals who are on the spectrum do not develop first impressions in the same way as neurotypicals. This is not to say that Aspies and auties fail to make first impressions, rather to suggest that other variables are at play.
For example, on Tuesday Darren joined a group of three boys his age. Mike’s behavior was in stark contrast with Darren’s as well as the two other boys in the room. Mike was nervous, excited, and happy to have a new member. He was tired from his school day and from a session with me individually to address some other issues he was having. Mike is more impulsive and less attentive than the other boys. When Darren asked the guys for help with a friend at school who is spreading rumors, Mike said, “I’d murder him in an online game.” Mike repeatedly used mild curse words, despite admonishing from George, who reminded Mike that Darren might not appreciate this language.
By most standards, Mike’s first impression on Darren was less than stellar, an idea I pointed out to Mike several times in a variety of ways. But, ultimately, the “impression” of the first impression was not my call. Darren’s opinion is what mattered, and Darren said, “He’s like my friend Sam at school.”
The complicating factor is that neurotypicals would not have made such a judgment. Neurotypical thinking and emoting is what has made the idea of a first impression so challenging, scrutinizing, and anxiety-producing. Aspies and auties seems to have a dual challenge:
- The pressure to try to create a good first impression without some of the social skills to do so and the social-cognitive skills to actively process their behaviors in vivo
- A different way of processing, assessing, and adjudicating others that can result in categorically different impressions of others
It seems that Aspies and auties have a second chance with each other, but not with NTs. Maybe we NTs could learn a few things.