Answering autism questions: How to fix problems with conversations
Autism is international. There may be cultural differences, in different countries, but the autism questions are surprisingly similar.
I recently did an online program and Q & A session with a group of parents in Vietnam. Here is an interesting question that came from that meeting.
"My daughter (age 15) has a habit of asking her Grandpa, who lives with my family, the same question every time she comes back from school and when she has free time. She will ask him if he is afraid of rats and how to get rid of them. No matter how much I warn her to change the topic, she persists with that question. What should I do?"
In order to answer this question thoroughly, I’ll break it down into some parts.
She wants to communicate
The daughter has language and a desire to have a conversation with her Grandpa. That’s a good start. Many children with autism don’t demonstrate that desire to interact with others. When students don’t initiate conversation that skill often needs to be taught. But this girl initiates conversation at appropriate times like when she returns from school and at other random times during the day. That’s good!
Daughter asks the same question every time
That’s not a surprise. In fact, that is quite common. It is very typical for individuals with autism to learn routines. Her routine may be to find Grandpa and have a conversation about the rats.
You and I would think we need to talk about a variety of topics, but for students with autism, routines don’t easily change. We might not realize that they are asking the same questions over and over if it is a more generic subject or a more pleasant topic, but the topic of rats is pretty obvious when it is used over and over.
But the good part is that daughter has learned how to initiate a conversation. Mom doesn’t say anything about what happens after her daughter starts the conversation. Does it keep going? Does it stop because no one wants to talk about rats? Grampa is the communication partner. What does he say or do?
Keep in mind that students may learn to ask a question to start a conversation but then they don’t know how to stay involved in the conversation or how to keep it going. That is a different skill.
Mom tells her daughter to change the topic
This is a problem. It is a natural response to tell our children what we want them to do or what we want them to change.
But that’s the problem. Just telling them, “Do something different” is not enough. It’s difficult to understand, but the daughter probably does not know what else to have a conversation about. She does not know what else to do. That’s what she needs to learn.
Here’s a solution
In my workshops, I frequently say this:
IT’S EASIER TO TEACH A NEW ROUTINE
THAN IT IS TO CHANGE AN OLD BEHAVIOR
Here’s what that means
Instead of trying to teach the daughter “Don’t talk about rats” it will be much easier to teach her how to talk with Grandpa about some new, different topics.
The best way to teach a new routine
Visual strategies work really well when we want to teach students new routines.
Here are some suggestions
- Think of something that would be appropriate for daughter to say to Grampa. Put that question or comment on a card. Show daughter the card to teach her how to ask Grampa a new question.
- Put 2 questions or comments on 2 different cards and teach daughter how to choose one of the topics to approach Grandpa.
I don’t know this daughter, so I’m not sure exactly what she needs. Some students need to be taught one card and one topic at a time.
For other students, you could create a page of choices and the student would understand quickly how to make the choices.
And here’s one more thing
Sometimes students will learn how to start a conversation, but they also need to learn how to keep a conversation going. You can use visual strategies to teach this skill, too. Just write some of her choices of what to say.
Think of 2 or 3 things she could say to keep the conversation going. For example:
What did you do today?
What else did you do?
Did you have a good day?
What are you going to do now?
Do you want to go for a walk with me?
Conversation is complicated
We don’t think about how conversations change depending on what each conversation partner says and does. Teaching conversation skills is difficult because there are so many changes and moving parts to any conversation.
But teaching a few questions or conversation starters is a good place to begin when answering an autism question about conversations. And remember, visual strategies are handy tools to teach these conversation skills.