Conversations and autistic teenagers
Like all teenagers, autistic teenagers need to have conversations in many situations – for example, with friends, shop assistants, teachers or GPs.
Conversations have unspoken rules and social demands, which autistic teenagers might need support to understand and practise. For example, they might need to:
- learn that conversations involve both people speaking
- practise letting other people speak and not talking only about their own interests
- work on managing anxiety and stress about conversations.
Conversation skills can help autistic teenagers build meaningful relationships and friendships with their peers. This can help with their confidence, self-worth and sense of belonging.
Conversation skills for autistic teenagers: step by step
A step-by-step approach can help your autistic child start and take part in conversations. The steps below are designed so you can work through them with your child.
1. Go to the person you want to talk to
Stand about an arm’s length away from the person. Face the person.
2. Wait until the other person is ready to talk to you
If the person you want to talk to is talking to someone else, it’s good to wait until they’re finished, especially if the person is someone you don’t know. Look for the signs that tell you it’s OK to start a conversation. For example, the person looks at you. Or you say, ‘Excuse me’ and the person asks you what you want.
3. Start the conversation
Here are some good ways to start conversations:
- First say ‘Hello’. Or you can say ‘Excuse me’ if you want to get someone’s attention.
- Then use the person’s name. This will let the person know you want to talk to them. For example, ‘Hello, Morgan’, or ‘Excuse me, Morgan’.
- Next say something general, like ‘How are you?’ or ‘It’s nice to see you’. For example, ‘Hello Morgan. How are you?’
What you 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.
4. Take it in to turns to talk
Take it in turns when you and someone else are talking to each other. Let the person answer your questions. Give the person a chance to ask you a question in return.
Check whether the other person is interested or starting to look bored. If you think the other person is getting bored, ask the other person a question to keep the conversation interesting or to change the topic.
5. Think of things to talk about
Try talking about things that you know the other person likes as well as things that you like. If you both like the same things, you could talk about these. Good things to talk about include TV programs, school lessons or sports.
It might not be good 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 feel about 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 the person’s feelings. For example, you can say the person’s hair is a nice colour, even if it isn’t. Some people call these ‘white lies’.
6. Say sorry if you make a mistake
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’re autistic, 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 tell you when you say something that’s not OK, and to suggest a better way to say it.
7. End the conversation
Watch for signs that someone wants to end a conversation with you. The person might:
- not ask questions back
- look around the room
- say they have 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’ll probably need to go over these steps many times with your child. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. You might find it helps to share experiences and get support from other parents. You could try online or face-to-face support groups.
Tips for working on conversation skills with autistic teenagers
Here are some tips that can help you adapt the steps above to your autistic child’s strengths, needs and stage of development:
- When you start working on conversation skills with your child, start with short conversations on topics that interest your child.
- Build up to longer conversations on less interesting topics or with less familiar people.
- Use the steps above to create prompt cards or visual cues that your child could carry with them.
- Role-play conversations with your child, or video a conversation for your child to watch.