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Connecting Through Conversation

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Connecting Through Conversation

By Margaret Oliver, MEd

Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2012

 

Before you understood autism spectrum disorder (ASD), could you imagine yourself carrying on a conversation with a mute person? Or listening to a monologue about another person’s favored topic and not being able to add input—and having the other person think it was a great conversation?  Or having the last three words of every sentence you said repeated back to you? Your world has expanded quite a bit, hasn’t it? Because you understand, the world of a person with ASD has expanded, too.

I believe that it is critical to engage in meaningful conversations with individuals with ASD. This may seem obvious, but all too often I have forgotten to verbalize my thoughts with persons on the spectrum and have observed the same from others. The communication and social deficits present in persons with ASD create barriers to the natural flow of conversation. Add to this a tendency to focus intensely on narrow interests, and persons on the spectrum experience yet another hindrance to reciprocal communication. A sad formula for loneliness could be in place unless individuals with ASD are actively engaged in meaningful human interactions.

Conversations are social, collaborative events where new understandings can emerge because of the interaction. They occur throughout each day for many purposes—to share information, clarify, make plans, complain, or compliment. Regardless of the purpose, each conversation has the goal of connection. Conversations are two-sided; we are confident that we can offer the connection by initiating conversation, and we are hopeful that the connection can be made and maintained even if we do not see immediate evidence. Many people on the spectrum struggle as they make efforts to connect through conversation. If frustration mounts and successful interaction is rare, the person with ASD may give up.

Making a Connection

I believe the greatest challenge for anyone with ASD is creating and maintaining the human connection. I recall poignant insights that formed my understanding of ASD. Author Karen Siff Exkorn (2005) said, “aloneness may not be a preference,” and scientific studies show that parts of the social brain in people with ASD may be weak as a result of lifelong social deprivation. Digby Tantam (2009) analogizes the “interbrain” of individuals on the spectrum to stand-alone computers, as opposed to the “interbrain” of the neurotypical population, which is connected by the Internet. He surmises that those with ASD sense the aloneness and are aware of being different and cut off. How unfortunate it is when someone with ASD is avoided because of the misinformed belief that the individual prefers aloneness; when the nonverbal person with ASD does not have anyone initiate a conversation or discuss a relevant topic because a one-sided conversation feels unnatural; or when an initiated conversation by a person with ASD is cut short because the recipient of the conversation is taken aback by social awkwardness.

People on the spectrum are not void of relating; in fact their perspective often includes warmth and enthusiasm. An adult I knew with limited language would initiate a light shoulder touch accompanied by one word—hug—to greet me. I have had a teenage boy ask me how he can get a girlfriend. I have had a seven-year-old boy declare his love for me when he saw monsters in love in the picture book we were reading. People on the spectrum need the human connection, deficits or not.

People with ASD need their conversers to take a leap of faith. The interaction can be missing reliable intuitive feedback such as eye contact, shared attention, and body-language confirmations. In some instances conversations will be carried on completely by the one conversing with the individual with ASD; in other instances the conversation will be dominated as a monologue or spun out on tangents by the individual with ASD. Those who converse with people on the spectrum will not always receive the same instantaneous reinforcers present in most everyday conversations. Nonetheless, people with ASD need the connection that occurs when humans join to create meaning in conversation.

You Are the Converser and Interpreter

In a book by Pamela Tanguay (2001), she explains that frequently a child with nonverbal disabilities will show preference to one parent as “the person who interprets the mystifying world around them, and the culture that the child doesn’t understand.” Her insight christened me with the title of interpreter and helped me realize a core need of individuals with ASD. The best way I have been able to interpret the social world is through modeling and conversations, even with those who have limited verbal ability. Who, besides the parent, can take on this role? Tantam proposes that only good communicators might actually succeed in connecting with the impaired “interbrain” of individuals on the spectrum. It follows that our next title is good communicator or more simply, converser.

Persons on the spectrum should not be excluded from meaningful conversations and human connections because of their social and communicative impairments and limited verbal ability. The blind have braille; the deaf have sign language; and persons with ASD should have their converser and interpreter.

Creating Opportunities to Connect

Conversations are natural human events that can fit in anywhere, anytime. Because of their casual nature, the use of conversations to expand the world of persons on the spectrum is an easy intervention that does not feel like intense therapy work. Here are some ideas to incorporate as you take on the converser and interpreter roles.

  1. Remember to talk! We tend to mirror one another in human actions, so if our conversing partner with ASD is silent, we may be silent also. Or we may limit our verbalizations to directives only—“time for dinner,” “stay seated,” etc. You may feel awkward at first as you begin to dialog, and that’s okay. It becomes more natural as you continue to engage.
  2. Be authentic. Keep the conversation on subjects you would normally talk about. The conversation doesn’t have to be formal or preplanned but instead can spring from the day’s events and concerns. You can use conversations to discuss emotions and reactions to the day’s happenings and, hopefully, to co-create a better understanding of life. It is definitely more authentic for the person with ASD to have a chat about a favorite, perseverative topic, and this is your chance as interpreter to try some turn taking and expansion of subject matter.
  3. Take advantage of multiple opportunities. Don’t be concerned that the person with ASD isn’t listening, or that it is over his head. Conversations happen all the time, and you will have multiple opportunities to say things in a variety of ways. As a bonus your converser with ASD will have just as many opportunities to comprehend.
  4. Explain often. Repetition is our friend as we pepper our conversations with the who, what, when, where, and why of everyday life. Use every opportunity to explain and expand upon the subject for the benefit of the listener.  If you are using applied behavior analysis (ABA), you can infuse explanations. For example, if you are teaching the child to say “hi,” you can introduce each session by giving a brief explanation of why we greet each other. (Another good use of multiple opportunities!)
  5. Use questions. Intersperse your conversation with questions and wait for a response. Depending on the recipient’s abilities, you may or may not get a verbal response, but this should not deter you from practicing a conversational mode. Although we do not know the silent thought processes of the recipient, we have set up the framework and cadence for conversations and have provided opportunities to reciprocate—even if the response is silent. Imagine the delightful opportunities you have when you do receive a verbal response!
  6. Model a response. If there are holes in your conversation where the other participant would normally step in, go ahead and play the participant’s part after waiting long enough for a response. Questions for persons with ASD can be especially challenging because of language processing difficulties, so modeling the answer is an effective instructional tool.
  7. Verbalize your thought process. You may be surprised that you, too, are benefiting as you solve problems or gain understanding simply by changing your thinking process from internal silence to verbalization. Your “aha” moments will be shared events that are co-created with a person with ASD.
  8. Use read-alouds as a springboard. Continue reading to your child or student beyond the primary years. You can create a special time together and use informational and fictional works to expand both of your worlds. The time we spend reading aloud is about equal to the time we spend discussing what we read, and from there conversing about many related and unrelated topics—all as a result of reading a book.

Conversations are naturally occurring events that have the immediate effect of creating a connection and making sense of the participants’ worlds. You needn’t worry about saying the right thing or getting professional results. Simply by engaging in conversations with individuals on the spectrum—verbal or not—you are respectfully giving them the human connection that everyone needs and deserves.

BIO

Margaret Oliver, MEd, teaches Grades K–2 students with ASD for Akron Public Schools (Ohio). She has learned much about ASD through relatives, friends, and students.

References

Exkorn, K. 2005. The ASD Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know about Diagnosis, Treatment, Coping, and Healing. New York: HarperCollins.

Tanguay, P. 2001. Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at Home: A Parent’s Guide. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Tantam, D. 2009. Can the World Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder? Nonverbal Communication, Asperger Syndrome, and the Interbrain. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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