“My five-and-a-half year old son is on the autism spectrum and is hyperlexic. I’m really struggling to figure out how to engage him in conversation – even the briefest of exchanges – where I initiate the topic rather than him.
I try to keep my language simple and concrete such as: “Tell me one activity you did today at school.” But more often than not, he will not answer, walk away, or say something – often a random or scripted line – to change the subject. It’s even more difficult when I want to get him to revisit a difficult event and process it in a moment of calm.
This is especially puzzling to me given his huge leaps in language over the past year or so. When he’s initiating conversation, he can be incredibly chatty! He is doing well in a regular ed Kindergarten classroom and not relying heavily on his aide to follow directions and participate in activities, so it seems he’s not having problems tuning in and speaking up in class. I suspect that he is struggling with an auditory processing difficulty, but it seems extremely contextual.
Any suggestions for helping my son tune in to conversation, even when the topic isn’t superheroes or Pixar movies?”
– Christa Dahlstrom, who writes about life with her son at Hyperlexicon
It’s always less fun to talk about things you don’t necessarily enjoy talking about. We all have topics in which we feel more comfortable: things we’re interested in, things we’re knowledgeable about, or things of particular importance to our lives. For children on the autistic spectrum, the task of discussing things that aren’t of personal interest can be not only less enjoyable, but also extremely challenging. This is because communication is often characterized by difficulty with perspective taking, reading social cues (both verbal and nonverbal), and formulating appropriate questions and responses. Some ideas for helping engage your child in conversation about something that’s not on the top of their list:
- Have a “conversation jar.” Have everyone write down a topic or two and put it in the jar. Take turns drawing conversation starters at dinner, or afterschool, or before bed. This way the child will know that while it’s okay to talk about what they’d like to; it’s also part of the deal to talk about what others would like to. Make some (flexible) guidelines about how long you can discuss each topic. It might help to write the rules down in case your child needs a cue to move on. You can say something like, “Okay, let’s look at our guidelines; did we all ask one question about the topic?” Keeping them as guidelines rather than rules will help to increase flexibility (you don’t want to shut down a fabulous conversation simply because it’s the “rule”).
- Keep a list of questions on the fridge, or somewhere they can be easily seen. Sometimes difficulty discussing unfamiliar topics simply comes down to not knowing what to say. Play a game where you and your child take turns asking questions from the list. Questions can range from, “Did anything make you laugh today?” to, “What do you think about ____?” or “What would you like to do tonight?” To make it a game you might have a reward, a marble jar for example, that you put a marble into every time someone asks a question from the list. Have a mini-competition while you’re getting ready for dinner or while you’re eating breakfast to see how many marbles you can get as a family team. There could be a tangible reward for when the jar is filled up to a certain point- maybe a trip to the movies or other special activity. In our groups the idea of a pizza party is very motivating and could easily be adapted for a Friday night at home.
- To increase awareness that individuals have different things on their minds, make a simple chart that shows what family members have going on. For example, you might use a white board with a small area designated for each person. Encourage everyone to jot something down that’s of importance to them: a math test, what to make for dinner, a friend who’s not feeling well, etc. This can also be used in coordination with the list of questions; fill in the blank formats such as, “How did the ____ go today?” might be especially helpful.
- Michelle Garcia Winner, an excellent source for information and ideas regarding social thinking and building social interaction skills, suggests using small play-doh balls to keep track of conversational turns. Every time someone responds appropriately or asks a questions about the designated topic, a ball is put into a bowl. This is very motivating for children because it’s exciting to see the pile growing bigger and bigger. You can use any items for this activity (pennies, cheerios, buttons).
Hopefully some of these ideas will work for increasing the range of conversation topics with your favorite child. If you have any additional ideas or would like to share something that’s worked for you, please leave a comment and let us know!