Intervention for Conversation Problems

By November 11, 2015Articles

Dr. Karina Poirier spells out the effective teaching strategies to learn conversational skills.

Healthy, consistent conversations are essential for development in any child, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). All conversations include several elements, including turn-taking among those speaking; topic setting and maintenance, and repairing conversational breakdowns.

To succeed in a conversation, a child has to take part in several cognitive steps even before uttering the first word. First, she has to interpret the situation and what the other person is talking about, then create a contextual framework that summarizes the conversation so far. This helps her decide how to respond not just in the right way, but in the way she intends.

A conversational framework helps you understand both the literal meaning of words and their subtext. For example, when a friend at a party says “Get out of here!” in response to a surprising fact, they mean one thing. But when they say “Get out of here!” because you offended them, they mean something else—even though the words are the same.

Plus, conversations can start out with one framework and shift into another one entirely. Sometimes what begins as a normal conversation can turn into a dispute, or a shift in authority.

Having a conversation is a little like dancing. You and your partner agree on the type of dance; for example, the foxtrot, the waltz, or a tango. How the dance proceeds depends on who’s leading and who’s following. These roles may reverse, and each person needs to fulfill their role appropriately. Plus, at any time the music may change, forcing both speakers to adjust their “dancing” to fit.

Like dances, conversations can’t occur at all if someone doesn’t know the basic steps required… or even how to “walk” at all. In conversation, these basics come in the form of event schemas, the cultural knowledge underlying the conversation. For example, for kids on a playground to argue about taking turns on a swing, they have to have basic knowledge of a playground schema. They would need to know the rules of taking turns, and how a playground works.

This assumed meaning is called presuppositional meaning. This requires that a person have social knowledge, the knowledge of event schemas. With presuppositional meaning, individuals enter a conversation and know exactly the right amount of information to give. Sometimes, though, children make the mistake of giving too little information. This is especially true for ASD children.

For example, one child may read a book and then talk about it to another child as if she has read it, even if she hasn’t. When this happens, it indicates a problem with presuppositional meaning—a common problem among children with autism and related disorders.

Knowing event schemas helps people understand meaning in a conversation. This meaning involves more than the meaning we create in our own minds; it also involves the meaning the other person brings to it. The ability to “negotiate” meaning is the big difference between a speech or lecture and a real conversation. Event schemas are building blocks of meaningful conversation.

Teaching Conversational Frameworks

Direct instruction not only gives children the information they need, it also helps familiarize them with certain conversational frameworks. That is, they learn the right way to hold a conversation involving the exchange of information. Within this framework, they learn what is right and wrong for the framework. For example, a threat or argument may not be appropriate for a conversation involving someone with more authority teaching something to someone with less authority. When this happens, the child may not understand enough about conversational frameworks to participate effectively in the conversation.

Other things a child may do incorrectly include:

  • Inappropriate presupposition—assuming the other person has the same amount of information they do;
  • Unestablished referents, where she assumes the other person knows what a specific pronoun refers to;
  • Omitting logical steps in an argument or sequence;
  • Unnecessary assertion or denial of a fact;
  • Excessive elaboration (basically, too much information);
  • Unnecessary elaboration, in which she repeats information;
  • Always speaking in full sentences, even when that’s unnecessary, because she has been taught to do so by a therapist.

A child may also experience:

  • Topic drift, when she goes off on a tangent;
  • Unmarked topic shifts, where she jumps unexpectedly to a new subject;
  • Stereotyped “learned” language—that is, repeating by rote something she has learned, in a way that seems coached or memorized;
  • Inappropriate questioning, i.e. asking questions that don’t fit into the conversation;
  • Socially inappropriate remarks, often in an over-personal or over-friendly way.

Several general techniques are used in conversation intervention, including:

  • Observation;
  • Rule teaching;
  • Scripting; and
  • Role-playing.

An important part of any intervention is mediation. This involves explaining to the child exactly what you are working on and why. Part of the process of mediating is explaining rules that apply to the part of language you’ve focused on.

While scripts may not be the best way to trigger natural conversation, they do give the child conversational practice. Learning scripts shows her that she has options about what to talk about.

Narratives, From Scripts To Stories

As outlined previously, a schema is the cultural knowledge underlying the conversation. The narratives children listen to and use are structured by the cognitive schemas existing in their minds. In recounting events, schemas can be presented as scripts, to help children make predictions and inferences about events.

Research reveals that children learn to recognize, anticipate, tell, read, and respond to narratives as part of initial language socialization. There are four universal types of narratives. One is fictionalized stories. The other three, recounts, eventcasts, and accounts, report factual scenes that stretch across time.

In recounts, children describe past experiences to people who shared those experiences. In eventcasts, they use language to accompany or plan events. Accounts derive from the child’s experiences or thoughts, and are initiated by her.

Even though each person’s experience is individual, knowing certain frameworks (schemas) gives the participants in a conversation the basis to ask questions or predict what happened within a particular schema as another person recounts it.

Scripts for familiar events are applied to similar events as a basis for predicting what might happen. These scripts can be temporally or causally ordered. For example, you can’t get on an airplane until you go to the airport, and you can’t go to the airport until you get into a car to drive to the airport. Even very young children create their own personal scripts and scripts for common events like going to the doctor’s office or going to bed. They show little variation from child to child

The existence of a script has been shown to increase comprehension and communication.

Often, for the language-impaired child, knowledge of a particular script isn’t the problem; verbalizing it is. Even with a script providing a framework, such children can have trouble attaching verbal labels to elements within the script, or retrieving those labels. Those who are unable to recall sequencing of events may not grasp the causality of those events, failing to use the words “if”, “then,” and “because.”

When children have trouble with scripted accounts, they may have problems with (1) an inefficient processing system that slows the retrieval of schemas, (2) a lack of planning and monitoring skills, or (3) insufficient schema knowledge.

For children with narrative deficiencies, an adult may try to provide a “conversational map.” That is, they can present their own experience with a specific event, and the child, using the format provided by the adult, will then relay her own experience with the specific event.

The development of narrative skills depends on both cognitive development and certain linguistic abilities. True narratives are built on logical relationships among events, and on relations between characters’ thoughts and motivations and their actions.

Research shows that the ability to tell stories is a strong predictor of academic success. This leads to the hypothesis that this correlation comes about because stories serve as a middle ground between the context-embedded language of the home, and the non-interactive, context-free language of school.

Taking it Further

The topic of executive functions is expanded in detail, in my book, Unlocking Social Potential in Autism. In this book, I help you understand what autism is, where it comes from, how to treat it—and why it doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of loneliness for your child.

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 gain social independence, you might also consider my Social Potential Roadmap. Join the notification list.

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