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Building conversation skills in teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Mansi Jain,

Parents can play a vital role in guiding children with through social challenges.

Autistic children require a little extra support to comfortably interact with others.

A smooth sailing life demands a minimum level of engagement with the world through communication, gestures and body language, responding to questions, and continued conversation. Communication and sociability are skills that children naturally pick up from their environment. However, this doesn’t apply to kids living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

What is ASD? 
This is the umbrella term for a group of complex development disorders that present persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and non-verbal communication. This can also lead to restrictive or repetitive behaviour, learning disability, difficulty in thinking and problem solving.  

How does ASD affect communication? 
Children with ASD often find it challenging to emotionally engage and interact with others. They seem to exist in a private world where thought processes and emotions that aren’t theirs are harder for them to make sense of. They present with difficulty in developing language skills and communicating non-verbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. The unspoken rules and social demands of conversation are harder for them to grasp and require support. 

How can parents help? 
When working on their autistic child’s conversation skills, parents should keep their strengths, challenges, needs and stages of development. Here is what you can do to help your little one communicate better with the following skill sets.  

Initiating Conversation: Encourage your children to initiate conversations with others. Suggest that she starts with a “hello” or “excuse me” along with the person’s name. This will help her gain the other person’s attention. She can also start with something as generic as, “How are you?” or “What are you doing?” as a conversation starter. 

Taking turns to talk: Emphasize on the importance of the participation of both parties in the conversation. Teach them to take turns when talking to someone, asking the other person questions, and letting him answer those questions. In return, give him the opportunity to ask questions. 

Thinking of topics for conversation: Encourage your kid to pick a topic that is interests both the parties involved in conversation. Easily agreeable topics can include movies and TV Shows, hobbies, etc. Lead your child away from insensitive comments such as criticizing someone’s choice of clothing or asking personal questions like how much they earn. 

Looking out for non-verbal cues: Explain to your children that a person’s interest in the conversation can be gauged by facial expressions. If the other person feels uncomfortable or bored, their body language and facial expression will give your child a clue about it. So, teach your child the art of reading non-verbal cues.  

Ending the conversation: Help your child recognize signs that someone wants to finish the conversation. Signs like the other person yawning, looking at their watch or around the room, ceasing to respond with questions can indicate that she wishes to end the interaction. Also, teach your children that if she wishes to end the conversation, she can use polite phrases like this: “I should get going now.”  

Strategies to inculcate these skills 
Helping a child with ASD pick up the above-mentioned skills can be challenging. However, a few smart tricks can help:

  • Engage your child in one-on-one conversations before progressing to small groups and crowds 
  • Prompt and model these skills by exaggerating them in simple language 
  • While talking to your little one, use visual cues like flash cards or comic strips to teach 
  • Share comments and feedback on how he is performing in a social situation 
  • Finding videos of model conversations which your child can use as a reference.  

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