The ebb and flow of conversation comes naturally to most of us. We take turns trading ideas, instinctively knowing when to talk and when to listen. The process seems so simple that it’s hard to believe there’s a list of unwritten rules that is often baffling to people with Asperger’s syndrome. For AS kids, learning the rules can be tough — but it can be done.
Last week, Cindy Wheeler, a speech pathologist based in Halifax offered our parent group some examples of how she helps children on the spectrum improve their conversational skills. She said some children have a tough time sticking with a topic, or their mind seems to inexorably drift to a preferred interest, leaving companions feeling frustrated and ignored.
As well, some children miss social cues that indicate how the other person is feeling about the conversation. Wheeler offered the example of a little boy who is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. His preoccupation with the character is so powerful that he rarely talks about anything else, even when prompted to change the subject.
“He just doesn’t see that this is an issue,” said Wheeler, adding that he didn’t flinch when she yawned and looked away during one of his monologues about the little blue train. The first step in changing this pattern was to decide what would motivate the boy to learn the art of conversation.
“Motivators are very important,” said Wheeler, adding that most kids on the spectrum seem reluctant to take part in skills training unless they are working toward a goal.
In the little boy’s case, the motivator was obvious: Thomas. Wheeler explained to the boy that if he worked hard at talking about things other than Thomas, he would be rewarded with some kind of Thomas treat. With the incentive in place, she started with simple word association. Wheeler would say a word and the boy would say a word, trying his best to steer clear of Thomas. The idea was to reinforce the need for turn-taking in dialogue.
Visual cues were also used to keep the boy on track, including a small, toy pig. Whenever the boy would start dominating the conversation, the pig was placed on the table — a signal that he was hogging the conversation. At one point, the sudden appearance of the toy surprised the boy. He stopped what he was saying and announced: “I’m hogging the conversation!” It was a small breakthrough on the long and sometimes confusing road to better communication.
Other visual cues include cue cards with pictures. “It needs to be scripted and overt,” said Wheeler, noting that when Thomas crept into the conversation, she had to raise her hand and tell him, “Stop.” Another tool at her disposal: field work. Parents are often prompted to ask their children to pose a question to a friend at school, then report back at the end of the day.
Some recommended reading: “Teach Me Language: A language manual for children with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and related developmental disorders,” by Sabrina Freeman, and “Spotlight on Social Skills” series.
Special thanks to Cindy Wheeler for taking the time to meet with our group.