Guest post on Aspergers’ by Angel: Teaching the Art of Conversation

A reader, Angel, who is raising an Aspie son, has been kind enough to contribute this article on Asperger’s and teaching the art of communication.  I hope you like it as much as I do!

 

Teaching the Art of Conversation:

Let’s face it.  Kids don’t want to talk to the odd kid out—the dork who always says the wrong thing. This sets up a vicious cycle—those who need practice interacting the most, get it the least.  My son fell victim to this downward spiral—practically no one would talk to him, so he couldn’t get the practice he needed to talk to them.  In an essay he wrote recently, he recalls what it was like to fall into this pit:

 

I couldn’t understand them, these seven-year-old kids. I felt like I was the butt of every joke, and I couldn’t handle it. It seemed like I always said the wrong thing, and I couldn’t ever just roll with the punches and “play along,” the absolute skill. Embarrassment was a fire that never ceased to scorch me. It was a daily emotion, and one that I learned to hate above all else. All of this culminated in one event that I’m still unwilling to share, especially with an unknown number of strange readers. It was so embarrassing to me that I was absolutely sure that I could not go back, could not face the kids who shared the knowledge of that day.

Though he didn’t confide in me at the time, I saw something I hadn’t seen before—a dark side emerging from this loving son of mine.  I pulled him out of public school and taught him myself until he decided to return in his junior year.  To both of our amazement, when he returned, he was instantly popular with other kids.

How did talking to me about his reading and writing assignments translate into excellent social skills nine years later?  It seemed that by practicing his skills on me, he was not only able to catch up, but actually got ahead of other teens.  Why are adults so much better than kids when it comes to teaching Aspergers how to conduct a good conversation?

Adults can be skilled listeners who help children “fill in the blanks.” They will entertain any topic, shared or not.  They don’t insist on conventional turn-taking, doing most of the talking for children who barely respond and most of the listening for children who talk like the wind. Adults will also prompt for further elaboration, or provide elaboration when a child omits the details he needs to complete a story.

If you are doing what comes naturally when talking to children, you are practicing speech therapy—coaching your child in what therapists call Speech Pragmatics.  Pragmatics concerns itself with what people mean, not what they say—usually the only type of speech therapy that Aspergers need.  Pragmatics teaches three fundamental skills: contextualization, turn-taking, andelaboration.

 

Contextualization may be the hardest for Aspergers to learn.  If a child’s statements are irrelevant to a shared topic, he may have misunderstood or forgotten its original context—responding as if he is willfully evading a question or changing the subject.  Parents must listen carefully for this conversation killer, gently insisting that the child stay on topic.  Queues for opening and closing a conversation should be explicit.  Taking turns is also a discipline that should be gently enforced—this could mean getting your child to pipe down and listen or prompting your child to come out of his shell.  Finally, elaboration is necessary to keep a conversation going.

 

To slow down the action, so that an Aspergers child has the extra time he needs to rehearse each of these three vital skills, you might try what I did for my son at home—interactive reading.  With a book in hand, the context of any topic will not be forgotten or misunderstood until you are ready to turn the page.  You can practice taking turns with your child through give-and-take questions and answers, then move on to general two-way discussions.  The story also provides a springboard for further interpretation and elaboration.

 

If you take every opportunity to rehearse proper contextualization, turn-taking, and elaboration in a safe environment as a pace your child can handle, you’d be amazed at the way this translates to better conversation with friends.

My son, now a teenager, happily converses with friends as if he never had Aspergers.  Words are spun round and round as each speaker elaborates, thickening the context of shared information, beginning a new round of contextualization, turn-taking,and elaboration,a self-perpetuating cycle, spinning so effortlessly that it sometimes escalates into the wee hours of the morning—particularly with teenagers who are keenly interested in self-expression.

When I first took him out of school, he had a long way to go before this could happen.  He needed extra prompting to move a conversation forward. For years, we privately worked at sowing the seeds of his future success. We rehearsed the contextualization, turn-taking, elaboration, contextualization, turn-taking, elaboration, contextualization, turn-taking, elaboration “spin cycle” until it became second nature. Who could have imagined that rehearsing at home would eventually lead to popularity at school?  In my son’s own words:

 

So, can you successfully educate an Aspergers kid at home, then, after he has matured, send him back to public school? While I can’t say that this method will work for everyone, the answer is yes, it is possible.  At least one person has done so.

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4 Responses to “Guest post on Aspergers’ by Angel: Teaching the Art of Conversation”

  1. Juggernaut Says:

    Hi Angel. I definitely appreciate you posting this article here and if you post any more articles, I will surely read them. It’s clear that you are a great parent who has been taking an active role in your child’s success.

    I’m a 21 year old college student. I was born with autism (not just aspergers, but autism) and had zero functionality. I did learn how to get out of my shell, but once I did, I never knew how to relate to kids. I would get bullied and excluded and had few friends. I was very outgoing too and I tried to make friends with people, but I didn’t know the rules of communication as you outlined so I would be that annoying kid nobody would talk to.

    Most popular kids would not want to be around me. A few popular kids actually thought I was okay, but wouldn’t risk the stigma of being my friend. I started out befriending the other less popular kids, the shy kids. I sat at what was called the loser table in elementary and middle school, but I had friends. That’s what mattered. I made a lot of mistakes, and ruined a couple meaningful friendships. I also tried many different activities and failed to get along with the people, but I learned from all of them.

    My mom was a great person who care about my well-being, but they knew nothing of AS, so aside from them taking me to doctors and therapists who did next to nothing good for me, they couldn’t do anything. I had to be independent. My dad vanished for years and my stepdad worked long hours, so I had to teach myself how to be a man.

    I went to a high functioning special ed private school for 8th grade, and half the students were aspies. That enabled me to learn social skills more. I became the lead singer of a rock band and was one of the most popular kids in the school. But the problem was I never had such social success so I didn’t know how to maintain it. In freshmen year, when bands were asking me to play with them and people wanted to be my friend, I just quit the band and withdrew myself out of self sabotage. I was the least popular kid until the end of sophomore year when I made a come back, but I transfered back to public school in junior year. I got to the point where some groups of people really loved me and accepted me and others absolutely hated me. I had opportunities to be popular again in high school, but I would always sabotage them. Leaving me very confused, wanting popularity yet rejecting it when I got it.

    Over the past 6 years, I’ve worked to improving myself so much socially that I could behave and act the same exact way a nuerotypical does. I saw Aspie traits as undesirable (and very wrong), and I felt like I had to purge them out of me. And I did get rid of 90% of them. At this point, I’m not so much into the Aspie/nuerotypical divide. I never wanted to live with Aspie as my label or identity. I wanted to be a nuerotypical. Some aspies say that they are always socially awkward and can never change – I think they can if they are willing to challenge themselves.

    Needless to say, no matter how far behind I think I am socially, I am proud that I was able to change myself into a person I’m proud of, who can go after and achieve those same things that I couldn’t years ago. In some aspects, I’d say I’m years ahead many other people socially, because I was hungrier for acceptance and worked much harder toward improving.

    Right now I help parents with autistic children and I’m penning two books on how to transform oneself into a person who is burdened by AS symptoms into a person who can socialize with ease and do what they set their mind to without their AS stopping them.

    There are many rules of communication and socializing. I had to learn them all myself and endure a lot of emotional pain as I constantly made mistakes. But I’m where I’m at now. That’s why I want to teach people with these difficulties on how to be socially successful, to make their learning process faster and much less painful.

    I said a lot here, but I do want to commend you again for helping your son learn all of those things.

  2. angelofletters Says:

    Hi, Juggernaut
    Isn’t it ironic that those who are forced to struggle the most eventually get ahead of those who take success for granted? Even the short version of your story is quite a page turner—particularly interesting to me because it describes many of the stages my son would have gone through if I had left him in public school. Having done your own R&D through trial and error in a harsh social climate, you’ve come up with the long term, life-mending solutions that doctors and therapists can’t offer during an office visit. I’m glad you plan to guide others through the stages to self transformation so that their paths are easier than yours. At the end of this road, all divisions between neurotypicals and others become meaningless—and you will get people there. I think your writing is spellbinding, so if you’re working on a couple of books that use personal experiences to demonstrate your general principles, you’ve got some voracious readers out there. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to read more, so you’ll have to keep us posted. I’m doing some writing too and I think our topics are similar. Interesting to have a dialogue with a counterpart out there. My brother has a free eBook book on getting published, if you want to search for Wheatmark for the PDF download. I’m sending you vibes, wishing you fast progress and will definitely keep reading your posts.

    • Juggernaut Says:

      Yes. It is just like how many of the people who immigrate to an English-speaking country actually end up having much better wording, sentence structure and diction than many people who always knew English (Xanthippa is a great example of this). Once you go from bad to average, you develop habits that make you want to go further than average.

      Even if all that I went through made me a stronger person, I still wouldn’t want anyone to experience the emotional pain that I had throughout much of my life. I don’t even think I’d want to have children, because of the risk they would get my genetics and go through all of the same pain. But I’m happy now with who I am and what I’ve done and what’s in store for the future. That’s what matters.

      As for publishing, self-publishing will allow me to keep the price extremely low so it’s accessible to everyone. And I see self-publishing as much more profitable too, directly and indirectly.

      If you have a blog, I’d certainly would be willing to read it.

      Thanks.

      • angelofletters Says:

        Judging by your thoughtful writing, I would say you are way above average. Please let me know where and when I can find anything you’ve published. Nothing matches personal experience for the wisdom it brings. You and Xanthippa are excellent examples of choosing words wisely. This made her thoughts on “perfectionism” all the more amusing. I didn’t respond to your post right away because, of all things, I was working on copy editing the final version of my book, An Exceptional Pupil. I have been told that, by the time I get my book out (about six weeks from now), I’d better be blogging. So, today my new blog is empty, but I’m writing my first post about core traits that Aspergers and autistics have in common. With any luck, I’ll finish it today—and let you know. I enjoyed my spot in the limelight as a guest on Xanthippa blog, so I also plan to keep publishing here. My blog is Exceptional Pupils angelofletters@wordpress.com. Do you have a blog? –Angel


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