Back when my son was six or seven, our behavior analyst dropped a mega-ton anvil on us by asking if we had ever actually conversed with him. Not instructed, not played games with, not helped with homework, but actually sat down and held a conversation as a family.
To my horror, I realized that I had never done this.
Life is busy. As parents, we’re working, running around, finishing errands, cooking, keeping kids in line, throwing towels in the laundry during spare moments… things never really slow down a lot. And when they do, I usually take the time to fold clothing or multi-task in some way.
So I stopped everything and approached my son. And discovered that he could only long-windedly talk about one subject at a time. Without allowing the other person to get a word in edgewise.
The ability to converse does not come naturally or easily to people with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s too much of a social activity. For anyone who has difficulty interpreting tone of voice or reading body language and facial expression, conversation is one giant mountain to overcome.
But it is not impossible.
Conversation can be learned. Just as one learns any skill: by practice, practice, and more practice, anyone out there can learn to converse.
Some key ideas we’ve practiced through the years:
1. Think of the person you wish to converse with. What are their interests? Grandma doesn’t have much to say about Ninja Turtles or Superheroes. However, she loves dogs, and always welcomes questions or stories about her own dogs.
2. Ask questions. A question can pull the audience back into the conversation. Also, they may have facts or stories to relate about the topic. For example: “Uncle, what’s your favorite superhero?” could lead to previously uncharted territory. One-time comic book or Justice League fans may be unmasked… and who knows where that will lead?
3. Give others a chance to contribute. Just pausing a moment may give that polite person – who’s turning purple and bursting at the seams to tell his story – a chance to share.
4. Limit Favorite Topic time. I know it’s hard! Those gears are working so hard on superheroes – Or Mario games, or Lord of the Rings, or whatever the topic of the moment may be – that steam’s practically erupting from the ears. All the same, a little practice in limiting Topic time will help in the long run. We usually limit Topic time to about 20 minutes a day, and will give reminders ahead of time that no, we’re not talking about Superheroes at lunch with Grandma. And no Mario, either. Think, son… what does Grandma like to talk about?
5. Body language and facial expression. Body language gives clues as to how people are receiving the topic of conversation. We’ll actually practice this with our son, at first turning away or looking distracted – in an exaggerated way to begin with – and ask him if we look interested, or whether a change of topic or a question is in order. Then we’ll smile and nod and act pleased… and see if he notices. If not, we’ll clue him in. And practice again, and again, and again.
6. Take turns setting the topic. Allow the other person to talk for a while about what they want to talk about. Ask questions about their topic. Surely there is something interesting about it! Even drains can be interesting if one thinks about the size the drain would have to be to fit the entire Justice League in it. If it seems related to a cherished subject – again, the superheroes or Mario or whatever – then the conversation can be led in that direction.
7. Don’t interrupt. Possibly the hardest thing on this list, and something I am still guilty of, at times… but interruptions are jarring, disrespectful, and will not win friends.
Many years have gone by since that life-changing question. Our son has learned to converse. He no longer approaches people only to monologue them to death. He’s learned to ask some interesting questions, and to adjust to other people changing the subject on him.
And yes, we still – even today – practice everything on this list. 😉
Note: Apologies for singling out my mother. She’s actually a hard-working, extremely generous person with many interests outside of our canine friends. Dogs are just so easy for a child to love and talk about that we tend to focus on them. Plus, since we can’t have any, our son tends to think of Grandma’s dogs as his own.