First Impressions and ASD: Maybe We Should Get a Second Chance?

18 Feb

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.


Posted by on February 18, 2011 in ASD in the Grand Scheme


8 responses to “First Impressions and ASD: Maybe We Should Get a Second Chance?

  1. Casdok

    February 18, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    We have much to learn.

  2. C. S. Wyatt

    February 18, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    In 40+ years, I’ve never figured it out — and I make all sorts of cheat sheets and notecards to deal with situations. The reality is, I know I should care what others think for career reasons, but no amount of thinking about it matters. Honestly, if someone doesn’t like me, I don’t care. Just don’t. And once I don’t like someone, forget it. I’ll never be able to tolerate that person. I relive bad moments daily, clear visual memories. I have nightmares years later about some people and how they treated me. Those people, including teachers (in fact, all are teachers, oddly enough), do not get a second chance with me.

    Sure, I should be able to be reasonable and logical. I know that. I know people make mistakes. Reality is, my mind doesn’t work that way. No amount of training otherwise has changed me. In fact, those therapists / experts only made me feel lousy about myself until I finally walked away.

    For some people, cheat sheets and notecards work. Role playing works for those people. For me? I can’t “pretend” to be anything or anyone. I cannot “imagine” a circumstance, so I can’t prepare or plan. I have spent decades trying to change and learn how to think like someone else. Just leads to a realization that I’m not like most people.

    People either accept me or not. I can’t explain why or why not some accept me. At the same time, I admit I don’t socialize with anyone, even when I speak at conferences. I don’t care to know most people and cannot fake it. I can read online, I can respond to words, but I don’t always connect words on a screen to a human, either.

    Temple Grandin says it best: “I’ve never won a job based on my personality.”

  3. Tam

    February 18, 2011 at 6:38 PM

    NTs wouldn’t compare someone they just met to someone they already know?

    • Sandra

      February 19, 2011 at 8:59 AM

      NT’s compare someone they just met to someone they already know all the time. That is part of the problem.

  4. Sandra

    February 19, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    Normal, typical, now neurotypical has never been defined and can not be defined. If “neurotypical” behavior is what a majority in the society do, that is constantly changing. It is all about the individual. Introductions and first impressions are only a beginning and no judgements or decisions should be made based solely upon a first impression. It is the relationship that results from that first impression that matters. Giving someone a chance will enable the relationship building process to begin.

  5. Jess Kahele

    February 19, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    I agree that first impressions are just that, “first” in what could be a very long list of learning and getting to know a person. It depends on how long you you have known a person how much weight is given to that first impression. The ratio gets smaller and smaller the longer you know a person. Obviously if you meet someone one and only one time then the first impression you have of them is weighted heavily. However as an aspie I am shocked at how many people seem so hell bent on judging an entire relationship on the first impression no matter how many times they interact with you or they are set on avoiding you at all costs just because something about you is different. Another problem with being different is that a neurotypical will find it hard to compare you to any of the people they already know and so you get lumped into the unknown unfavorable “category.” That just seems lazy to me. Why not just get to know the person if they are different and don’t compare to any of your friends. First impressions are meant to change and evolve but they can’t if you don’t let them. I think first impressions are important for knowing who may be of harm to you or who might try to manipulate you, bully you, etc. but from my personal perspective somehow neurotypicals commonly associate awkwardness with scary which makes no sense to me.

  6. Jack

    February 20, 2011 at 7:20 PM

    Things I’ve noticed, is that is someone decides on first impression that your ‘weird’ that they will tend to avoid you. The reasons why are complex however. I suspect it has the do with weird being different, and difference and change being possible danger.
    And people in general don’t seem to like change and the unknown all that much.


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