Don’t let social distancing inhibit your social skills learning.

Dr. William Lane
4 min readMar 20, 2020
Alexander Dummer / Unsplash

An individual on the autism spectrum shared their concerns in an autism subreddit this week about social distancing and communication skills building. To paraphrase, they explained that when they worked and went to school at the same time, they had great confidence about communicating; but, when they decided to quit work in order to better focus on school, they “talk like 30% less” and “have more anxiety talking to the teacher.”

Now that their school is closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak, they wondered “how long it’s going to take before I wake up again.”

They are not alone.

As many schools and universities are scrambling to implement virtual learning plans, companies are telling their employees to work from home, and bars and restaurants are closing out of “an abundance of caution” in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, American life has “shut down” as we know it. We have been encouraged to practice social distancing and told to stay at home as much as possible — but that should not keep you from improving your communication skills.

85% percent of a person’s success in life is based on their ability to communicate; and, like many skills, communication is a skill you can lose if you fail to practice regularly. With that said, here are three ways you can work on your social skills and still do your part in helping slowing the spread of the virus:

1. Practice your interpersonal skills…without people.

Tiny steps may lead to giant opportunities, and there are many different methods to taking tiny steps. You can practice your conversational skills by “talking” with inanimate objects.

I have a friend who would walk around the local park and practice their communication skills by saying “Hello” to the trees. As this exercise became more comfortable for them, they would select a particular part of the tree and envision that as a person’s eyes and both say “Hello” and make eye contact.

Of course, it does not have to be a tree — you can practice this exercise with any household item, like your kitchen appliances, a doorframe, etc. It may sound silly, but it works!

2. Conquer your fear of the phone.

Have you ever made the statement, “Do I really have to talk on the phone?”

One of my many dreaded fears was of having to talk to anyone on the phone. I was not sure what to say to them no matter how familiar I was with them. When the phone would ring and I would hear the statement, “So good to hear from you, we have not talked in a long time!” I would immediately try to find someplace to hide and speak for the shortest amount of time possible.

What I later discovered was that, when I was on the phone with someone else, they felt that I was preoccupied or just not concerned enough to listen to what they were saying. They were not interested in having a “one-sided” conversation with me.

Armed with this knowledge, I developed a plan that you can use: first, pre-plan your side of the conversation. Script it out. People might tell you that they feel you are reading to them — which you would be — but, more importantly, you will no longer feel anxious about talking on the phone. Explain why you need to script your conversation. For those who accept this, you will feel more comfortable and confident speaking with them.

Second, have a list of topics to talk to them about or be prepared to ask them what they would like to talk about it. People like to talk about things that are important to them. Listen carefully to what seems like topics of interest to them and make a conscious effort to bring those topics back into the conversation when the opportunity arises.

3️. Host a virtual dinner party.

If you are ready for a deeper level of interaction and connection, suggest inviting a couple of friends to have a dinner party over Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-chat service. You can all agree on preparing the same simple meal or, if it is easier, just make whatever you have readily available.

This would be a great way to practice your social situation conversations. Have a set a questions prepared ahead of time to have topics of conversation ready and to help reduce any stress and anxiety levels. Whenever I am ask to attend an event, one of the first preparations I make is to plan at least five questions that I know I can ask to anyone. These are what I call my “safety questions.

How are you practicing social distancing? Do you know anyone who might benefit from these tips?

Dr. William Lane is a special education consultant, international speaker, and best-selling author who helps post-secondary institutions and businesses develop programs that create clear pathways to graduation and meaningful employment opportunities for neurodivergent individuals. For more information about Dr. Lane and his services, please visit his website.

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Dr. William Lane

Special education consultant, international speaker, and best-selling author advocating for neurodiversity on campus and in the workplace.