08 July 2011
Good conversation skills are essential for meaningful social interaction. Children with High Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) have a unique set of challenges in the areas of social communication and conversation with peers. This article will give you specific tips for developing your child’s conversation skills. For children with HFA and AS, the main challenges during conversations include being able to talk about a large variety of topics, focusing on peers’ ideas, limit the amount of time spent talking about themselves and their preferred topics, and being able to read the body language of their conversation partners.
Most children with HFA and AS have topics or areas of interest about which they are extremely knowledgeable. A child may be interested in topics like vacuums, stamps, or pens. These are interests that are less likely to be shared by peers. Even when a child’s interest is more common (e.g., dinosaurs, trains, or sports), he or she will learn more about the topic than most peers. It is important to help your child have conversations about a wider variety of topics so he or she will feel confident with peers and be included in social interactions. You can practice these skills by having daily conversations with your child about a variety of topics.
Below are 10 simple tips for expanding your child’s conversation skills.
Tip #1 – Begin by practicing topics that are similar to your child’s preferred topic and gradually make the topics more varied. For example, if your child’s preferred topic is Star Wars, you can begin by having conversations about planets or astronauts.
Tip #2 – After practicing a conversation about a less preferred topic, show your child that they did a great job by having a fun conversation about his or her favorite topic. For example, discuss Halloween for 2 minutes, then the Roman Empire for 3 minutes. To start, the less preferred conversation should be shorter and the preferred one longer. Over time, you can practice longer conversations about less preferred topics and shorter conversations about your child’s favorite topics.
Tip #3 – To make less preferred conversations more interesting allow your child to pick a topic from his other interests or offer him a choice of three topics. Another fun idea is for you, your child, and a sibling/peer to each write down 5 fun or interesting ideas, throw them into a box or hat, and take turns choosing topics to talk about from there. That way your child’s favorite topics will be naturally mixed in with his less preferred topics, and he will understand that other people have different areas of interest.
Tip #4 – Give your child a clear and measurable guideline for conversations. For example, you can teach your child to say one thing about himself then ask his friend a question about herself. Another good rule of thumb is to have your child to wait for his friend to say three things about her topic before he changes the subject. Practice these skills daily in conversations with your child and remind your child of the guidelines before he interacts with peers. It’s best not to teach too many guidelines at once; you don’t want to overwhelm your child. Instead, set one rule, let your child master that rule, and then add another rule to the mix.
Tip #5 – Set a specified amount of time your child can engage in preferred conversations. For example, allow conversation about a favorite topic twice per day for five minutes each time. Be sure to engage in those conversations with gusto when it’s time for them! At other times, remind your child of this guideline and encourage conversations about other interesting topics. Don’t forget to reinforce your child remembering and trying! You can give praise, discuss a favorite topic, give him free time, or allow more privileges for that day.
Tip #6 – If your child is “bursting” to talk about a preferred topic and you want to limit how frequently he discusses that topic, give your child a specific time when the topic can be discussed (e.g., “We aren’t going to talk about dinosaurs right now, but we can during lunch time”). It also works to have your child journal (write things down) when he is “dying” to share something and it’s not the right time.
Tip #7 – Make a chart of different types of body language and their meaning, review it with your child, and give it to him to keep or post somewhere discreet. This will allow your child to consult it at a later date if necessary. For example, looking away = not interested; smiling = interested. Be sure to demonstrate different types of body language for your child during conversations, and discuss what each gesture and facial expression means. For example, you can nod while your child is talking and explain that this means that you’re interested in the conversation. Yawning may mean that the listener is bored, looking at a watch may mean that the listener is in a hurry, and crossed arms might mean that the listener is upset. Observe your family and friends for a day or two to come up with a comprehensive list of things to teach or check out the internet for suggestions.
Tip #8 – Practice what to do in social situations when peers might be losing interest or want to change the subject. For example, if a friend is looking down, teach your child to ask, “What do you want to talk about?”
Tip #9 – Have your child pick a favorite friend from school and list a few things she knows about that friend; use the list to brainstorm about topics that the friend might enjoy discussing. Prepare your child to ask questions or make comments to her friend based on the things she thinks her friend might like to talk about. This will help expand your child’s understanding of other people’s thoughts and preferences.
Tip #10 – Prepare your child to join and leave conversations involving a group of peers. Write down the 4 or 5 steps involved in starting, joining, and ending conversations and changing the subject. For example, the steps involved in joining a conversation are:
1. Listen to the topic being discussed.
2. Think of something related to say or ask.
3. Wait for a pause in the conversation.
4. Make your statement or ask your question.
5. Look at the person who responds, listen to what she says, and respond to her.
If you use these tips and practice conversation skills daily, your child will be able to talk about a wider variety of topics, focus on her peers’ ideas, restrict discussing highly preferred but repetitive topics, and understand body language better.