Social Skill Strategies
Constructing Conversations—One Skill at a Time
By Katie Brady, LCSW
Autism Asperger’s Digest | March/April 2012
Carrying on a reciprocal, engaging, enjoyable conversation is challenging for many individuals, and this is especially true for persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The skills needed to engage in conversation are directly related to the challenges that individuals with ASD have—communication, social, and restricted interests. When you think about it, there are many different skills needed to engage in a conversation, and it’s remarkable that most neurotypicals (NTs) learn these skills through osmosis! However, teaching conversational skills explicitly, concretely, and visually is exactly what is needed to help individuals with ASD learn to engage in conversation appropriately and successfully.
Turn taking is an important foundational skill that is necessary to learn before a person works on more abstract conversational skills. This can be taught in a number of concrete ways. When working on a puzzle, put all the pieces in a bag and help two children pass the bag back and forth, removing one piece at a time and putting the piece in the puzzle. When playing a game such asCandyLandCastle, slide the game (the castle) back and forth between the kids. When the castle is in front of a child, it is visually clear whose turn it is. Finally, use a talking object to denote whose turn it is to talk. If a child does not have the talking object, he should be listening. Some spectrum kids may need visuals to show that skill as well.
A child with ASD may have the desire to engage socially with peers, but not the skills to pull off the interaction naturally. For instance, the child may walk up to a group of new kids and say, “My favorite Pokémon is Bulbasaur. I like him because….” and continue on a monologue while the other children lose interest. It is important to give children concrete, visual scripts that they can say to begin a conversation, such as “Hi, I’m Katie. What’s your name?” or “I like playing on the slides. Do you want to play with me?” These visuals can be pictures or written scripts (whatever the child understands best), and the parent or teacher can help the child by role-playing with him first, then having the child practice with an understanding peer. It’s helpful to create multiple opportunities so the child can practice the skill often. As the child learns and generalizes the skill, make the visuals less obvious as needed.
Many individuals with ASD who are verbal are great at offering information about their interests. Sometimes, though, this offering of information comes out in a monologue, leaving the other partner in the conversational exchange disinterested, bored, or even annoyed. Children with ASD should be taught guidelines for how much information to give, and should practice offering information about a variety of topics, not just their favorites. While all conversations vary, coming up with a specific guideline can sometimes be helpful when first teaching conversation skills. You may decide to teach a child the concept of “saying three sentences and then asking one question.” Remember to make this strategy visual, perhaps by writing a reminder or vertically writing three periods and one question mark on a card to symbolize the concept. For talking about a variety of topics, many parents and professionals use either pictures or topic cards to generate a variety of conversational topics. It is helpful to mix in the child’s favorite topics (e.g., Star Wars) with neutral topics such as school, pets, hobbies, and travel.
First Listening, Then Asking Relevant Questions
A conversation should not be all talking and no listening. It is important for a conversation to be reciprocal, which involves each person taking time to speak, listen to the other person, and ask relevant questions. Many adults with Asperger’s Syndrome have mentioned to me that the listening piece is extremely challenging as they may use the time when the conversational partner is talking to mentally plan their response, regardless of what the other person is saying. Again it may be useful to create a list of common questions or comments that one can ask or say after another person has offered information. For instance, “Wow, that’s really interesting!” or “I’ve never heard of that before. Tell me more.” When role-playing, or practicing in real life, take time to write some options the person with ASD can say or ask if he gets stuck. Having a visual bank of questions will be more meaningful and helpful in the long run than verbal prompting alone.
Recognizing Nonverbal Cues
People often give off nonverbal cues that display a secondary meaning. For instance, if someone pulls out their keys or looks at their watch, they are probably indicating that they are in a hurry and need to leave. We likely know NTs who struggle with recognizing these cues, and it is even more challenging for people with ASD to pick up on these “secret” signals! It is crucial that individuals with ASD practice recognizing these cues both in teaching situations and in real life. Many adults with ASD can label these nonverbal cues when shown a video, or when watching people act out an exchange, but may completely miss these signals when actually engaged in a conversation. Recognizing others’ nonverbal cues of “the conversation is over” or “I am not interested in talking to you” will help individuals with ASD end conversations appropriately and positively.
When one thinks about it, there are myriad skills needed to effectively engage in conversation. Effective strategies include practicing turn taking, using visuals, role-playing, and rehearsing real-life situations with feedback. Individuals with ASD can improve their social skills if the deficits are targeted in an isolated way—focusing on one skill at a time and using visual and routine-based strategies that build on the individual’s strengths.
Katie Brady works with individuals with ASD and their families, and was a therapist at the Chapel HillTEACCHCenterfor six years. Read more about Katie’s ASD services at www.katiebradylcsw.com.
Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.