Learning effective conversational skills is ranked as one of the most significant social abilities that children with Autism need to accomplish. Something as simple as finding out what they want for breakfast or whether or they are happy/sad can be difficult. Some common challenges faced by parents:
“Jane perseverates on her topic”
“John doesn’t take his turn”
“Braydon talks when nobody is listening”
“Kylie doesn’t look at me when she is talking”
What makes learning conversational skills so challenging?
Children with Autism may have difficulty developing language skills and understanding what others are saying to them. They also often face difficulty communicating non-verbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. In short, conversation requires exactly the skills these children struggle with:
Attending to others
Taking in and processing information quickly
Interpreting social cues
Comprehending abstract language
But this doesn’t mean they can’t converse. They simply do so in their own ways and require help to further develop their language skills in order to successfully use language to communicate with others.
Making the most of your child’s attempts to communicate
Many children with Autism do use words and verbal strategies to communicate and interact, they just use language in different ways. For example, echolalia is common in children with Autism – where they mimic words or phrases straight away, or much later on.
Children with Autism also sometimes:
Use made-up words also termed as neologisms
Repeat the same word over and over
Confuse pronouns and refer to themselves as ‘you’ and the person they’re talking to as ‘I’
Communicate non-verbally such as pointing or physically manipulating a person (e.g., taking their hand to grab an object they want)
These are often their attempts to communicate, but they don’t always work because we can’t understand what they are trying to say or express. But it is these beginnings that allow them to slowly learn to use language in ways people can understand. So, don’t lose hope!
You can communicate with your child, even if it’s not the same as the way other children communicate. For children with Autism, communication develops step-by-step, so it’s important to be in your child’s world of communication and to work one step at time.
Here are some ways you can encourage communication with your child:
1. Make use of short sentences
It is common for many to use too much language when talking to or giving instructions to children with Autism. It is a trap we all can easily fall into without realisation. Your child is still understanding language and complex sentences only make it harder. Keep your language simple and direct. For example, ‘Socks on’ versus ‘Put your socks on’.
2. Have topics for small talk
Help your child make a list of topics that most people like to talk about in shorter conversations. For example, the weather, learning what the person is doing or feeling, asking questions about what is going on in their life, a new pet or sport and etc. With practice, your child can develop awareness of topics that other people might want to talk about and increase their ease to communicate with people he/she doesn’t see very often.
3. Encourage and prompt fill-ins
Use open-ended questions to encourage and prompt your child to fill the gap when it’s their turn in a conversation. These questions encourage your child to give an opinion and extend his or her thinking beyond the here-and-now. For example, ‘Look at that flower. What colour is the flower?’
4. Pay attention to non-verbal signals
Non-verbal communication is common in children with Autism. As they struggle with manipulating language, they often develop various behaviors to signal things that you might expect them to verbalize. Certain actions or gestures they use can share so much more than the words they are verbalizing. Pay attention to your child and learn to interpret them, you might be surprised just how much you can connect with your child that way.
5. Talk about their interests
One approach that will not get you far is trying to force the conversation to the direction you want it to go. Instead, try to be in your child’s world. Part of having Autism can include obsessions with certain objects or topics which means a lot of discussion can arise about that particular thing. This is good!
You might find it boring or simple, but you’ll be able to find far more engagement with your child. While conversing, you can also practice and develop various conversational skills (e.g., turn taking to speak, attending to others and etc.).
6. Eye contact
Eye contact is an integral part of non-verbal communication, it allows you to connect with people. Maintaining eye contact with the person you are talking to indicates that you are actively listening and paying attention. Eye contact is also important in maintaining conversation flow. So, it’s something we want to encourage in children with Autism.
Here are some ideas to encourage eye contact from your child:
Be at eye level – make sure you are in a physical position that will encourage eye contact. That is, face-to-face and at their physical level so your child can see your eyes and be more likely to notice you.
Give your child a reason to look – hold a desired object in front of your eyes so your child looks at your eyes at the same time as looking towards the object.
Wait, wait, wait – hold the desired object for a few added seconds before letting your child take it to encourage your child to look towards you when they don’t get the object immediately.
Trying to teach your child with Autism conversational skills is no easy feat but neither is it impossible. Consistency and patience are key. Don’t let yourself become discouraged and give up; stay focused on your end goal and never lose hope!
Written by: Joey
Lowry, L. (2019). Four tips for helping children with Autism make eye contact. Retrieved from http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Four-Tips-for-Helping-Children-with-Autism-Make-Ey.aspx
Paul, R. (2008). Interventions to improve communication in autism. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 17(4), 835-856.
Raising Children. (2020). Communication: Children with Autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/communicating-relationships/communicating/communication-asd
Sautter, E. (2021). Small talk can loom large: Teaching your child the flow of conversation. Retrieved from https://autismawarenesscentre.com/small-talk-can-loom-large-teaching-child-flow-conversation/
Shane, H. C., & Weiss-Kapp, S. (2008). Visual language in Autism. Plural Pub Incorporated.