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.