Answering an autism question: How to fix conversations

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:



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.
Visual cue - things to say to Grampa

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.

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  1. My 43 year old daughter with autism works at a workshop. She has kind of a love/hate relationship with one of her co-workers there. She is fascinated by him but yet says she does not like him. The problem is that she will say that John is staring at her (probably more likely that she is staring at him) or that he touched her (the staff keep her separated from him). I have told her many times just to leave John alone and she does for awhile but after a few days, bring him up again. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    1. Hi Wendy:
      You are asking a great question and it ties in really well with the topic of this blog post. I don’t know your daughter, so I’ll make a few suggestions for you to consider.

      The first thing I think about is how individuals with autism tend to get into “routines.” They say or do the same things repeatedly. Why? It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, they don’t know what else to say or do??? There can be a lot of reasons.

      So, here’s what I like to do (and an important note here: this technique works for lots of individuals, not just those with autism.)

      I love to use notebooks for recording and “journaling” conversations. I am going to presume your daughter has some competence with literacy, but even if she doesn’t, this strategy still works. You can still write things down or draw little pictures or use a combination of both. The point is that it is recorded in the book. I would tell her it’s HER BOOK, or use her name like MARY’S BOOK. Put her name on it and some stickers or something to make it very special for her.

      Then use that book to record important conversations. You can put the day and/or the date on a page. For example: If she comes home to tell you something about John, suggest that you put it in her book. Just write down what she says. For example: ” John looked at me today. I didn’t like it. If John looks at me I need to look at my work or I need to tell Miss Wendy that he is bothering me.” or “When he looks at me it makes me mad.” I’m guessing that her descriptions of the events are pretty standard. You can include “Mom says to leave him alone and ignore him.”

      Your entry does not need to be long, but it needs to capture her experience and her emotions a bit. For example, “It made me a little bit mad.” OR “It made me a LOT mad.”

      If she tells you she likes John or thinks he is special, that would be another thing to put in her book. The book should not be only about negative things and it should not be only about John. The goal is to capture some of her life experiences and emotions.

      BUT . . .this is what’s important. If she comes home and repeats the same story again and again, you can say, “We already wrote about that in your book.” This can be a way to deflect from repeated conversations. Or you can tell her, “We already talked about that. Let’s talk about something different.” Or you can remind her of the solution you identified before, “Remember we talked about XXXXX.”

      The point is that when it is “carved in stone” by being written in her book, you will find you can manage the conversations differently.

      Try this out with your daughter and let us know how it works. I would love to hear.

      1. Thanks for the very helpful article and answer to Wendy’s question. I’ll try out your suggestion with my student with ADHD who also has a special interest, but tends to go off on tangents. I’ll use the book to keep him on topic and teach him how to wrap up a conversation before moving onto another one. And definitely, I’ll use it as suggested for my son and students with ASD. It’s culturally versatile. What a wonderful solution!

        1. Thanks for your comments. This strategy is something that you can modify for each student to help mold your conversations with him. I am very interested to find out how it works for you. Be sue to let me know what happens!

  2. Thank you Linda for answering my question. It’s very clear and understandable. I will try step by step to help her and report to you shortly. Thank you very much.

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