By Raising Children Network
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Conversations can be tricky for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Here are step-by-step conversation skills for your child to practise and even carry with her as a visual prompt.
Two teenaged boys discussing work at school (c) F. Young

Conversations and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

Your child will be faced with many situations when he needs to have a conversation – for example, with a friend, shopkeeper or GP.

But conversations have unspoken rules, which teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find difficult to understand. For example, they might dominate the conversation by not letting the other person speak, or they might talk only about things that interest them.

Conversation skills: step by step

Here are some steps that can help your child start and take part in conversations. You could go through these steps with your child, or use them to create a prompt card that your child could carry in her school bag as a reminder. You could also role-play having a conversation with your child, or video a conversation for her to watch.

When you start working on these conversation skills with your child, encourage your child to have short, appropriate conversations at first and work up to longer conversations once the skills come naturally to him. This will help him learn conversational etiquette while building his confidence.

1. When to start a conversation
If the person you want to talk to is talking to someone else – especially if it’s someone you don’t know – it might be best to wait until they’re finished. That way you might have more time to talk.

2. Where to stand when you want to start
Go up to the person you want to talk to, but stop when you’re about an arm’s length away. Face the person.

3. What to say to start the conversation
Saying ‘Hello’ is normally a good way to start a conversation, or ‘Excuse me’ if you want to attract someone’s attention. Using the person’s name will help the person know you want to talk to him or her.

What to say depends on the situation and the person you’re talking to. For example, you might say ‘Hi’ to a friend but ‘Hello’ to a teacher, or you might say ‘Grandma’ instead of your grandma’s name.

It’s a good idea to start with something general rather than starting on a particular topic. Some ideas include ‘How are you?’ or ‘It’s nice to see you’.

4. How to talk in the conversation
Take it in turns when you’re talking to someone. Let the person answer your questions. Give the person a chance to ask you a question in return.

5. What to say in the conversation
Think about conversation topics. Try talking about things that you know the other person likes as well as the things that you like. If you both like the same things, you could talk about these.

Topics that might be appropriate to talk about include TV programs, school lessons or sports.

It might not be appropriate to say that you don’t like someone’s clothes, or to ask someone how much money they earn.

Take a moment to think about how the other person might be affected by what you say. Will it make them feel uncomfortable? Will it hurt their feelings? Sometimes it’s OK not to tell the truth, if you think it might hurt their feelings – for example, saying they don’t look fat, even if they do. Some people call these ‘little white lies’.

6. What to do if there’s a problem in the conversation
If you make a mistake and upset someone, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Saying sorry usually helps. If you’re not sure what you’ve done to upset someone, or if you’re not sure how someone is feeling, ask.

If your friends know you have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), explain to them how this means that sometimes you say things in a different way, but that you don’t mean to upset them. Ask them to let you know when you say something that’s not OK, and suggest a better way to say it.

7. How to end a conversation
Watch out for signals that someone wants to end a conversation with you. The person might:

  • not ask questions back
  • look around the room
  • yawn
  • say he or she has something else to do.

If you want to end the conversation, say something like, ‘Well I’d better be going now’ before saying ‘Goodbye’. This is more polite than just saying ‘Goodbye’ and walking away.

You will probably need to go over these messages many times with your child. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. You might find it helpful to share experiences and get support from other parents in our forum for parents of children with ASD.
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  • Last Updated 21-11-2013
  • Last Reviewed 21-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article has been developed based on material created by The Autistic Society, UK, and in collaboration with Diane Jacobs at La Trobe University.
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