Starting a conversation, for a child with mild autism or Aspergers, can be a real challenge. Children with Aspergers 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.
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:
- Provide the student with a set of basic rules for initiating conversations.
- Help the student create scripts for starting conversations.
- 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.