Dr. Karina Poirier discusses how to teach children with autism to effectively engage in conversation with others.
Children with autism often have trouble starting, continuing, and ending conversations with others, which reduces their opportunities for social interaction with peers. Unfortunately, peers pick up on the signals that a child is struggling to have a conversation or participate in play that requires communication with others, and they may choose to socially isolate the child because he does not appear to be “typical.” This social isolation can negatively affect a child’s emotional development and eventually his academic performance also.
In order to successfully engage in conversation with others, children with autism must be taught each element of conversation, including initiation, topic-setting, turn-taking, asking and answering questions, and ending a conversation politely. Children must also learn the “rules” for participating in a conversation. For example, it is important to understand that a conversation involves listening to and providing information about a subject—not too little or too much information, and only the important information. It also involves appropriate body language—both demonstrating it and “reading” others’ body language. And it involves appropriate volume and proximity—we don’t talk too quietly or too loudly, and we don’t stand too close or too far from someone we’re talking to.
For example, when teaching your child how to initiate a conversation with a peer, emphasize the importance of his tone of voice, facial expression and body language along with the words he should use. Your child should approach a peer with a smile while being aware of his proximity to the peer; his body language should convey interest in the peer without intruding on the peer’s personal space. Then, your child should use a friendly voice to ask a question or make a comment about what the peer is doing. This is the most effective way to successfully initiate a conversation.
A child with autism may struggle to participate in conversations, but it does not mean that he will never be able to chat with peers about what he did over the weekend. In my practice, I have seen minimally verbal children blossom into talkative, social individuals who seek interaction with their peers. Your child has the potential to learn conversation skills and thrive with your help, and you have the opportunity to reduce the social isolation he might experience from peers at school. It will certainly be rewarding for both of you when he is able to participate in a conversation during a play date.
Taking it Further
For those of you who are parents or teachers of children with autism, and who would like hands-on experiential training in how to help your child master communication skills and gain social independence, you might also consider my learning solutions.