How to Teach Children With Aspergers to Start a Conversation

Starting a conversation, for a children with Asperger’s, can be a real challenge. Children with Asperger’s will either butt in and start talking about their favorite interests, or they may give up, and keep to themselves, alone and preoccupied with their ‘own world.’ These children may desperately wish to fit in, but they have no idea how to do so, so they eventually give up, or make things worse for themselves.

teaching chidlren with autism

photo credit qwrtty on Flickr

Dr. Jeanette McAfee has written a curriculum called Navigating the Social World: A Curriculum for Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, High Functioning Autism and Related Disorders, a curriculum inspired by watching her own daughter’s struggles with relating. This material is taken from this workbook.

The goals of the program called, “Initiating Conversations” are as follows:

  1. Provide the student with a set of basic rules for initiating conversations.
  2. Help the student create scripts for starting conversations.
  3. Help the student apply these rules and scripts through the use of role modeling and videotaping.

Step One: Teach rules for starting conversations.

You can teach the student the mnemonic (a mind memory or hearing aid), called “PATHS”

P stands for Prepare ahead.

A stands for Ask yourself what you are going to talk about.

T stands for Time it right

H stands for say Hello

S stands for nonverbal Signals.

Step Two: Show examples of conversation starters in video movies.

Choose video movies that have good examples of conversation starters. Discuss which aspects of the PATHS model were used by the different actors. You can “freeze frame” the beginning, middle, and end of the conversations, so that you and the student/child can further discuss the rules from Step One.

Step Three: Create scripts

First, help the child prepare ‘fact files’ on either index cards or on their own computer (many children on the autism spectrum love computers and are pretty savvy!). Help her choose a few people she knows fairly well (this could be a parent, sibling, teacher, and one or two peers who treat her well).

She should then choose one person on her list to interview. Of course, you can practice a few role plays of the interview prior to her going out to her live interview. Help her collect facts about the person on one side of the index card, and interests on the other side. Repeat this activity over the next few times you meet until she has collected several fact files for the few people she is most familiar with.

You can use the PATHS model to rehearse starting the conversation.

Start with an imagined scenario, such as “I see Diane standing alone on the playground.”

Using the PATHS model, you can come up with a conversation starter grid, using the P A T H S across the top of a page, with the above scenario on the left.

1. Recall information from the Personal file. (Diane is leaving in one week for a vacation in New York).

2. Ask yourself what you are going to say. (I will say, ” How are plans for your vacation coming along?”)

3. Check Timing. Diane is alone and appears not to be busy. Good time to talk.

4. Start with Hello. “Hi, Diane.

5. Use good nonverbal Signals(smile, body turned toward her, friendly tone of voice, good eye contact)

Start the conversation: “Hi, Diane. How are plans for your vacation coming along?”

Step Four: Role-Play

1. Create different scenarios in which one person starts upa conversation with another person or with a group of people. Create characters together of children, teens, or adults.

Begin working with one child, reversing roles intermittently, always reviewing the PATHS rules.

Eventually, you can bring in a peer, a parent, or another teacher to the mix.

2. Play “Actor and Director.” Have two ‘actors’ act out a conversation, but intentionally make mistakes in starting the conversations (e.g., not making eye contact, starting a conversation when the other person is really too busy to talk, etc). The “director”, one of the students, then identifies which parts were done correctly, which were mistakes, and then models how to start the conversation more effectively.

3. When the students are comfortable with these activities, some of the sessions can be videotaped. Feedback can be friendly, but also needs to be specific, using the five PATHS rules for staring conversations.

Step Five: Practice initiating conversations in real life situations

At this point, the child/student needs to pick a person that she has been thinking about initiating a conversation with. Have her set a goal of starting a conversation with the person later that day. She should review the facts she has learned about the other person, and think of topics that are interesting to the other person. Review the PATHS rules.

If possible, it can be helpful to let the other person that is going to be approached know in advance. When possible, videotape the child who is actually initiating the conversation. Videotaping the child initiating conversations in different situations (e.g., classrooms, palyground, home, community), will be invaluable to helping the child generalize her skills to many different situations.

Watch the videotape together, and talk about what went well, what could have gone better, and what to work on next time.

Your student or child with Aspergers syndrome and/or high functioning autism is now on her way to starting conversations.

But what about maintaining the conversation once it’s begun?

That’s a topic for a future article:)

If you’d like to check out her resource, I include Dr. McAfee’s book among my favorite autism spectrum books.

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 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.
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  • http://www.parentcoachingforautism.com Connie

    Great article Steve. Very informative! Some individuals take the skill of conversation starting for granted yet it is a learned skill that many need to practice, not just children and adults with challenges. In my past experience as a school counselor I would focus on teaching such skills to an entire class, not just a selected few. We can always brush up on our social skills no matter how old we get.

  • http://www.parentcoachingforautism.com Connie

    Great article Steve. Very informative! Some individuals take the skill of conversation starting for granted yet it is a learned skill that many need to practice, not just children and adults with challenges. In my past experience as a school counselor I would focus on teaching such skills to an entire class, not just a selected few. We can always brush up on our social skills no matter how old we get.

  • http://www.personal-success-factors.com steveborgman

    Connie, thanks for your comment. I really enjoyed your recent article on how to take advantage of every moment as a teachable moment with children on the autism spectrum. Which is why I posted it here recently :) Thanks for all you do.

  • http://www.nha.gov.ph/forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=204 Croatia

    This is the 2nd occasion I have come across your blog post in the last couple weeks. Seems like I ought to take note of it.

  • Bonnie Murphy

    Wonderful article and am going to sit down with daughter and create the PATHS cards together, she is an artist! Love idea to incorporate video so she can review herself interacting, hope she can use with her Teen Skills Class to help do some TEEN TALK!

    Will let you know how it works out. I would LIKE on Facebook but she is beginning to use Facebook herself so starting to not comment on stuff regarding Aspergers / Autism and topics that relate to her specifically because it makes her self conscious.

    As always, your information is so useful!

  • http://www.stephenborgman.com Stephen Borgman

    Bonnie, I totally understand about the Like feature of Facebook. You definitely want to be very careful with sharing anything that will cause family to feel uncomfortable. I wish you the best as you work with your daughter. She sounds like a great person :) You’ll have to share some of her art work with me sometime!

  • http://www.stephenborgman.com Stephen Borgman

    Thanks you for your kind comment. I hope you have a chance to come by more often.

  • Sonja

    I’m beginning to think my older son may be on the spectrum of AS. I also believe my husband is AS. I’m reading more and more which increases my convincement. I’ve looked in to support groups for spouses and hope to learn how to adjust to this new world. We’re a close family and want to stay together. However, a father and son with AS living with a mother and son who are very communicative/emotional brings challenges.

    I really have believed that preparing scripts really help many folks and have wanted to do so with my older son. Now this article gives steps and support. He’s so lonely this year because he switched schools leaving him isolated. He wants to return to his old school but there may not be any space. It’s frustrating. But I wonder if he can increase communication skills then he might be better situated in life to start up a conversation.

  • http://www.myaspergers.net Steve-Prosper With Aspergers

    Sonya, thanks so much for sharing your experience. I’m so encouraged that you are learning and gaining some insight here on the blog. I’m going to recommend that you check out socialthinking.com for some great resources for your son. And you might enjoy my article, about Aspergers and Marriage written on my Psychology Today blog, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spectrum-solutions/201006/what-everybody-ought-know-about-aspergers-and-marriage

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  • KatiePaul1

    Hello, I used PATHS in my speech therapy lesson today! I love it. I was wondering for step 2 if you had any recommendations for videos/tv shows that I could download?
    Thank you so much,
    Katie Glass

  • http://www.personal-success-factors.com/ SteveBorgman

     @KatiePaul1 Hi, Katie!  Glad you found this information helpful.  I’m not an SLP, but I did look up this information, and I hope you find it helpful: http://www.linguisystems.com/products/product/search  Just type in “conversation” for some helpful products that may help you.  I’m not an affiliate with them, but I know they have excellent materials.  Here’s functional conversation games, one of their products: http://www.linguisystems.com/products/product/display?itemid=10682

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