When the average person thinks of autism, or Asperger’s, she likely thinks of the stereotypical social difficulties. Because social problems are often the easiest to see and notice, neurotypicals have a tendency to think of autism as a largely (if not entirely) social disorder. While this is far from the truth, it is not an entirely unreasonable point of view. Social difficulties unite those of us with ASDs, and many of us share similar struggles with cognitive empathy*, nonverbal communication, and unwritten social rules.
Yet, while we flounder with social skills, these superpowers seem to come naturally to neurotypicals. Despite the fact that such intuitive social graces may elude autistics, many of these skills can be learned with the help of the right tools. Autistics will always have to put forth more conscious effort during social interaction, but education can be surprisingly effective in the battle against social disability. In this modern age, resources like the Internet have laid the needed tools at our feet. All a young autistic need do to begin his research is open a tab in his web browser.
But beware, brave adventurer, when you step outside your door.
Autistics desperate to learn the social skills intuitive to neurotypicals are faced with a frustrating paradox, at times amusing, yet more often tragic: Those who know the least are also the least equipped to differentiate between helpful and toxic advice.
One such niche that aims to teach social skills to the unenlightened is the Pick-Up Artist (“PUA”) community. In this post, we will explore the world of Pick-Up Artistry, and how it both aids and cripples autistics.
For those who may not be familiar with the PUA community, I will use the Wikipedia definition of a “pick-up artist”:
A man who trains in the skills and art of finding, attracting, and seducing women. Such a man purportedly abides by a certain system deemed effective by that community in his attempts to seduce women.
The PUA community exists for two distinct reasons, one legitimate, and one vaguely (and often explicitly) sinister:
- To teach the socially awkward and naïve how to navigate social situations and become confident in their romantic pursuits, and
- To teach men how to easily have sex with women.
Many of those who read and make use of PUA literature are in the first group; these are well-intentioned individuals who just want to learn how to make friends, find romantic partners, and feel more comfortable socializing. But more often than not, self-styled PUAs are entitled misogynists who view social interaction as a game for all the wrong reasons, approaching romance as a battle to be won or lost, disregarding the feelings and desires of the women they manipulate and reducing them to objects.
It has probably already occurred to you why a discussion on the PUA community is relevant to the plight of autistics struggling to teach themselves social skills.
There is a startlingly fine line between the two major mindsets present in the PUA community, and a socially disabled autistic with little natural intuition for these kinds of social codes can easily become swept up into The Game and indoctrinated into the second group.
Before I get too deep into my criticisms, I want to pause to say that I recognize the value in certain PUA guides, and that I myself have learned a great deal about social interaction from PUA literature. The concept itself—analyzing socialization and breaking down human connection into logically explained steps and rules—is not inherently wrong, and can be very useful for autistics.
I’ve encountered many neurotypicals who believe that such things are inherently wrong and manipulative, who believe that referring to social interaction as a game (as in resources like The Games People Play, by Eric Berne) is cold, artificial, and totally defeats the purpose of such interaction. But these opinions always seem to come from those to whom these games come naturally, those that don’t see the game, and don’t realize they are already playing. These are the kind of neurotypicals who can’t empathize with the plight of someone who might need to be taught such basic things as how to introduce oneself to a group of strangers, or how to start a conversation with a girl at a party.
So, if you are one of those people who has always felt that learning how to escalate a flirtatious situation to the point where one can naturally transition to a kiss is manipulative, and inherently wrong, know that you are half right. It is manipulative, because all communication is inherently manipulative*, but it is not necessarily wrong. Just because you have done such a thing without having to learn and remember the steps doesn’t mean your unconscious method is any more “right.”
Every animal communicates, both intentionally and unintentionally. A large colorful tail on a male peacock communicates his resource gathering proficiency and overall health (as seen in his ability to grow and carry so much mass), as well as his fitness in surviving (he is alive despite this wacky hindrance that weighs him down and makes him more visible to predators). A male seagull bringing a female a piece of food during the courtship period communicates his ability to provide future resources, should she choose to make a nest with him. One human leaning closer to another while making prolonged eye contact, glancing briefly to the mouth of the second, then resuming the prolonged eye contact, communicates a desire to kiss their partner. While most neurotypicals would engage in that last scenario intuitively, an autistic may need to learn the meaning of such a sequence in order to understand or utilize it.
Once upon a time, as an awkward 15-year-old with no knowledge of autism, before I had begun intentionally researching social cues, I found myself in the middle of many such situations with my first boyfriend. Worried that if I showed too much enthusiasm I would be shamed for my feelings, like some bastardized internalization of the plight of Helga Pataki in Hey! Arnold, I accepted his hugs with the stiffest imitation of nonchalance I could muster. He would let go and pull away, and we would stare at each other, nervously trying to figure out what to do next (because of course we both knew what should come next). His gaze darted back and forth between my eyes and my mouth, and every time I saw this and thought, “Wow, he’s so uncomfortable right now. I’m no good at this. He probably just wants to leave.” Looking back on those afternoons I laugh (and cringe). I’m sure the poor kid just wanted to kiss me, and had no idea how to go about it. And I know for a fact that my anxious misinterpretations of his flitting gaze made everything that much worse. My desperate, sexually frustrated, self-sabotaging teenage self could surely have benefitted from PUA literature.
And yet, PUA literature often causes more harm than good, especially for the autistics that need it most. While I know that if I’d stumbled upon such a thing as a young teen I might have conquered my fears and actually kissed that boy, I’m glad I didn’t find the PUA community until much later. By the time I first started to read PUA guides I was a self-aware adult, armed with an ASD diagnosis, and educated on the merits of empathy, equality, and compassion. I was able to sift through the garbage to find the take-home messages of truth. The same cannot be said for most autistics exposed to this community.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Pick-Up Artistry” is the way in which the literature views and talks about women. This is a community of mostly men in an inherently privileged position who struggle to empathize with the women they are targeting. While many of the core truths at the heart of PUA are grounded in logic, these truths are easily interpreted by those who lack cognitive empathy in a way that dehumanizes and objectifies women. To make matters worse, much of this advice is explicitly objectifying in and of itself.
An example that embodies both of these issues is one of the most common elements of PUA literature, as well as one of the most controversial: the “HB” rating scale.
Practical in concept, albeit fairly problematic for (hopefully) obvious reasons, large portions of PUA approach and connection techniques rely on on the context-dependent status of the targeted individual. Put simply, this means that if the aspiring PUA wants to approach and “pick up” a woman, his methods, and how she reacts to them, will depend on her social status.
Common sense, right?
This method becomes problematic because PUAs distill this complex, valid concept into a high school romcom style 1-10 rating scale, called the “HB” scale. “HB” stands for “Hot Babe” (yes, really).
In concept, an “HB5” is going to respond to a direct compliment differently from an “HB10.” This is true, when one keeps in mind that in theory the status described refers not only to physical appearance, but also to social standing, presentation, and context. A pretty girl dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants, listening to her iPod on the bus, is going to respond to direct approach differently from that same girl in heels and a cocktail dress standing at the bar in a club. Yet not only does this scale inherently objectify women by reducing them to “HB”s, and implying that the whole of their presentation can be condensed to a number from 1 to 10, but this scale completely warps the individual PUA’s view of women.
Take, for example, this self-styled PUA’s explanation of the HB scale:
HB6: would be glad to get approached, feel flattered by a decent compliment
HB7: appreciates flattering attention, but it doesn’t make her day
HB8: probably only wants compliments/cold direct approaches from guys she already has interest in. Will turn down most approaches politely
HB9-10: Expects free drinks at bars, expects to be hit on, interprets men asking for directions on the street as hitting on her (and she’s usually right), might hold out all night, shooting down with sass every guy that approaches, then maybe go home with the guy who impressed her the most that night.
A naïve autistic man who struggles with cognitive empathy will have a hard time putting himself into the figurative shoes of these hypothetical woman, and may nod along with this description: “Ah, I get it! That makes perfect sense! I’m probably about a 5 or a 6, and I would definitely feel flattered if a stranger complimented me!” Even many neurotypical men often think this way; it’s the catch 22 of privilege. “Flattering attention is always appreciated,” seems like a logical conclusion to these people.
Men often have a hard time empathizing when women don’t appreciate such flattery because they do not live in a world where their physical appearance matters more than every other character trait they possess, where they are raised to believe “men only want one thing,” where that “one thing” is given a very weighty social value that can make or break a woman’s standing, and where she is taught from childhood that men can, and may, take this “one thing” from her through force.
A man perceives a compliment on his physical appearance as flattering, an indication of potential romantic interest, and a comment on a positive quality about himself. While a woman may perceive a compliment from an unknown man on her physical appearance as flattering, in many instances it simply serves as a reminder of things she’d rather not think about (or worse, she may be intimidated). In addition, these condensed scales often ignore context. An “HB6” walking on the sidewalk is not universally “glad to get approached” by a stranger looking to compliment her; she might be late to work, preoccupied with her day and not looking to ward off the potentially violent advances of a cat-caller. Men often seem to forget that women are raised in a world where they are taught from a young age that male sexuality is a violent, uncontrollable thing, and she has no way of knowing whether a compliment from a stranger is really “just” a compliment.
That description of the HB scale also brings to light the toxic view many PUAs have of beautiful, “high status” women.
This PUA’s description of an “HB9-10” woman is that of someone who not only is flirted with often, but also is incredibly entitled. She expects free drinks? She’s probably going to sass every guy that approaches her? The “women are bitches” trope is rampant in the PUA community. PUA literature in no uncertain terms reinforces the idea that beautiful, confident women are mean, selfish people. I can say with certainty that I know a great number of exceptionally beautiful, confident women of high social status who are also incredibly kind, polite, and conscientious. These women don’t sass guys who hit on them, and they don’t treat men like competing bucks and peacocks, “hold[ing] out all night” for the one bellowing alpha male who “impressed her the most.” Sure there are shallow, high status women out there, and there are plenty of normal girls who appreciate unprompted compliments from strangers, but PUA guides instill the message in their readers that all high status women are shallow, and all average, everyday women are desperate for male attention. And we all know that autistics are prone to latching on to such black and white dichotomies.
Another huge problem in the PUA community is its pathologically strict enforcement of a binary gender divide. PUA literature, in large part written by and for men, teaches the reader to “other” women in a very damaging way. This can be seen in the use of systems like the HB1-10 scale. This mindset, that women are so different from men and should be treated and approached very differently, is scattered throughout even the most basic of tips.
For example, this is a tip quoted from a PUA guide to getting close to girls romantically without accidentally creating a purely platonic relationship:
Game every girl. Even if you’re just being friends, the game is always on if there is any potential you’ll want to be more than friends later.
Again, a naïve autistic man who has little experience with women and few, if any, female friends might see this and nod along, taking it as good advice. This is especially true when one considers that most autistic men who lack experience dealing with women find themselves in this position in the first place due to their own inherent “othering” of women. They are afraid to talk to girls, but not boys, because they see girls as inherently different to an almost comically exaggerated degree. The concept of intentionally othering his female friends might seem normal to a person like this. But what this advice is saying is essentially: Make sure you treat all the women you interact with like potential sexual partners, not people, first and foremost. This is the epitome of objectification. A girl becomes not a fellow human who follows a different gender presentation but a Girl, an object of potential romantic interest who, even if there is no interest, must be kept in that box where females belong.
The PUA community is littered with official terms that oversimplify and objectify women. Went on a date that ended in sexual intercourse? Guess what, you didn’t share an enjoyable experience with your partner, you Closed! Brought a girl home who just wanted to make out a little, and doesn’t know you well enough yet to feel comfortable having sex? Don’t respect her autonomy, dude, focus on breaking through that Last Minute Resistance (“LMR”)! Flirting with a girl who’s so hot she must get bored with flirting? Make yourself stand out by bringing her ego down a notch with an insulting Neg! A girl you’ve targeted is trying to let you down gently by telling you she has a boyfriend? Nah, bro, that’s called a Shit Test! Demonstrate your Alpha Male status by cruising right past her clear signals with a witty one-liner like, “That’s okay, I’m not really the jealous type.” Teehee.
Ironically enough, the best pieces of PUA literature are those that don’t directly address picking up women. And the most useful parts of explicit pick-up guides are those that can be applied to all general social circumstances.
Many of the things I’ve learned from the PUA community have become invaluable to me. The key is in the sifting. The PUA community is like a thrift store: if you can dig through the endless racks of moldy, outdated nonsense, you might find something useful.
For example, one unnecessarily gendered, fairly sexist guide called “On Being A Modern Alpha Male” (gag) contains surprisingly helpful techniques for self improvement and confidence building, that I myself try to keep in mind in my everyday life, such as: Be Self-Validated (“You don’t look to others for approval because you know you’re an all-star”); Be Non-Reaction Seeking and Non-Reactive (“You are positive, understanding and beneficial to others yet do not need this fact acknowledged”); Be a Value Giver, Not a Value Taker (“You do not need approval from others. […] Every person you encounter in your life is better off for having met you. You look out for and protect the people in your life”); Be Fun (“You’re able to have fun everywhere you go. […] People want to be with you”); etc. This perfectly good guide to becoming confident via self-improvement is tainted with the gendered ridiculousness of the PUA community, but underneath all the gross “Alpha Male” nonsense is some legitimately good advice. The true take away from guides like these are that if you are a good, genuinely likeable person, you will be more confident, and thus have an easier time navigating social situations.
Amidst the cesspit that is the online PUA community one may find other gems, such as a guide on the “Importance of Projecting an Aura of Happiness and Well-Being.” Another guide, also meant to boost confidence, advertises itself as “10 Resolutions” for self-improvement, and tells the reader things like: exercise, dress nicely, make healthier food choices, smile more, pick up a new hobby, etc. These are tips that build confidence in a natural way.
Frustratingly, many guides contain a tricky mix of helpful and toxic advice, such as one guide addressing “Alpha Body Language & Tonality” (again, why must being a good, likeable person be conflated with this toxic machismo wolf pack silliness?). This particular guide lists a variety of positive ways to improve one’s nonverbal communication, and dissects the natural signals of confident people for the benefit of the not-so-confident, such as: Vocal Projection (confident people are confident in their speech, and not afraid to be heard); Unreactivity (confident people are not dependent on the validation of strangers); Physical Presence (confident people do not worry about the space they occupy, and allow themselves to take up as much space as they need), Stating Your Opinion (confident people are not tentative, they openly share their opinions); Escalation (if you’re flirting, don’t be worried about rejection and make your intentions known, if your feelings are not reciprocated, be “unreactive” and don’t think it reflects your self-worth); Be Comfortable With Silence (panicking to fill pauses vs. staying calm and letting conversation progress naturally); etc.
The problem is learning to sort the good advice from the bad.
That same guide also includes confidence tips that range from easily misinterpreted to downright toxic: Entitlement (“You fully assume that she is yours”); Indifference (“You are emotionally indifferent to her reactions”); Be Unapologetic (“You don’t try to please people, you just tell it like it is”); etc. There’s a fine line between being confident and just being an asshole, and it usually involves being conscientious and genuinely caring. A confident person who feels entitled to someone’s time or attention is an asshole. A confident person who is genuinely indifferent to the reactions of those around them, and is unapologetic when their actions may cross lines, is an asshole. Sure, caring less about other people and feeling more entitled might make you more confident, but it will also make you a jerk.
The test I apply when sifting through these guides—besides my own intuition as a woman who can imagine herself on the receiving end of these behaviors—is to imagine people I know in the real world who are genuinely confident, likeable, good people. Someone who’s naturally confident speaks more loudly than someone shy, and may also take up more bodily space. But I can clearly picture what it looks like when a kind, conscientious, confident person speaks loudly and clearly, and takes up more space because they are relaxed. That confidence looks very different from the kind of loud and space-filling behavior that comes from someone who is confident because they are an asshole. A kind, confident person will be unapologetic when they stand up for what they believe in and defend their own opinions, but will know when to apologize for going too far and hurting someone’s feelings. An asshole will tease and bully to get a reaction and then be “unapologetic” when the recipient feels hurt.
If you are an autistic who lacks confidence in social situations, flirting or otherwise, I do recommend a certain degree of rote learning of logically dissected social games and nonverbal communication. Read body language dictionaries. Read classic books on social interaction and cold reading. Skim PUA guides with a critical eye, and don’t take any advice that wouldn’t work just as well for a woman as for a man. Once you have a basic understanding of certain truths (such as confident people speak more clearly than their shy counterparts, or the basic pattern of flirtatious escalation), spend your time observing confident neurotypicals in their natural environments. Watch that couple across the restaurant and see if you can tell from their body language whether they’ve just met or if they’ve been together for years. Observe the couple arguing in the metro station and note their body language; what about their body language lets you know they’re fighting? Watch that confident friend you’re always so envious of as he makes small talk with strangers, and think about what he says, how he speaks, where his feet and hands are, where he points his body, and what he does with his face.
Learn to read body language out in the world, and you’ll have a skill you can actually use.
The biggest problem that arises from us autistics trying to learn social skills from written guides (the way most of us feel comfortable learning everything) is that social interaction can’t be canned. You can have canned openers, canned approaches, canned responses to equally canned questions, better known as scripting in the autism world (“Hey, how are you?” / “I’m good, how are you,” for example), but actual interaction is a fluid thing, dependent on ever-changing variables of human thought, emotion, and context.
Because I do believe in the usefulness of written guides—I myself couldn’t have learned from observation alone, or I wouldn’t have needed to learn in the first place!—I will write future “How To” guides for various types of social interaction. But it’s still important to keep in mind that the written theory is useless without real-world observation. For every hour you spend studying written texts, devote twice that time (or more) to studying real people in situ.
It’s ok to learn from guides, in fact I encourage it, but don’t rely on them. Learn your applied social skills by watching real people, and leave the “Pick-Up Artistry” to the clueless misogynists.
*Footnote 1: The limits of the English language combined with the famous autistic “lack of empathy” has lead to a problematic association between autism and conditions like sociopathy, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. I have been asked more times than I can remember to explain the difference between an autistic and a sociopath. Many people believe these things are one and the same. While we use the term “empathy” to describe deficits in both conditions, this is only because the literature refers to different types of empathy. While sociopaths lack Affective Empathy (defined by Frans deWaal as “being affected by another’s emotional or arousal state”), autistics lack intuitive Cognitive Empathy (defined by Rogers Dziobek et al as “the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state”). Cognitive empathy is sometimes called Theory of Mind. While an autistic can also be a sociopath, lacking both types of natural empathy, autistics that struggle with cognitive empathy are not necessarily “unempathetic” to the emotional states of others. In fact, many autistics are emotional sponges, and become easily overloaded by the strong emotions of others around them. I will address this topic more thoroughly in the future.
*Footnote 2: When I say things like “communication is inherently manipulative,” reactions tend to be knee-jerk negative, so I’d like to clarify. My Animal Communication professor in college described this well; I’ll try my best to paraphrase his genius: Communication is, by definition, a signal intended to manipulate the actions of its recipient. A communicative signal should give its recipient some information about the sender’s identity and/or intentions, and thus change the behavior of the recipient to reflect this new knowledge of the sender. A neurotypical doing this instinctually, like any other animal, isn’t any less manipulative.