Conversation is the basis for social relationships. It is through conversation that we learn about others and develop shared experiences. However, for many children with social language challenges, conversation is a rapid dance requiring a person to interpret AND display multiple perspective taking shifts, subtle non-verbal cues, flexibility in thought, active listening skills, joint attention and of course, verbal skills. Types of conversations are also varied; each with its own unique set of assumed social rules. Small talk, conversing to persuade someone, conversing to show empathy or support to someone or conversing to build a budding friendship all have different protocols. These protocol rules are seemingly learned through “osmosis” through a child’s careful observation of others and trial and error. However, students with social language challenges often need to more direct instruction in conversational basics and nuances.

An in depth conversational analysis is essential to assess the progress of learners on the autism spectrum.There are numerous variables to examine.  It is valuable to examine how a student is able to balance conversational turns with a conversational partner.  This is especially true if the topic is really interesting to him/her.It is also important to look at how a student is able to maintain a topic of conversation when it is a topic that someone else has initiated.In both of these cases, a child should be able to have approximately an equal percentage of conversational “turns” for themselves and the conversational partner.

It is also important in conversation that participants have a balanced number of comments and questions in a conversation.Many times, students on the autism spectrum demonstrate a larger percentage of comments versus questions. Comments largely serve the purpose to describe one’s own thoughts and experiences about a topic.Questions however, demonstrate social awareness by seeking to inquire about another person’s thoughts and experiences.Questions make the conversation reciprocal in nature and show the conversation partner that you are interested in what they have to contribute as well.A larger percentage of comments in a conversation may indicate lacking social thinking skills and an inequitable social exchange.

In addition to thinking about meeting the needs of both partners when conversing, one needs to continually take the perspective of the listener to monitor for comprehension and interest in the topic.At times, I have observed that students do not provide adequate background knowledge for the listener.  This occurs most frequently when they are talking about a topic of special interest to them personally, or when the student is telling about a personal event or story.As a listener I am left to “work hard” in the conversation, continually asking questions to comprehend.It is not surprising that this is a conversational behavior for learners on the autism spectrum.  It requires adept perspective taking skills to think about what kinds of prior knowledge different conversational partners have might need to share to help listeners understand. Refer to the Assessment page of this site for more details on Conversation assessment ideas.

The Teaching Ideas section under this Conversation skills page contains ideas for you to explore and PDF documents you can download and use. Check back often to find new ideas!

© Jill D. Kuzma, Minneapolis MN, 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Neither this document nor its concept may be duplicated, distributed, or re-published in any format without written permission from the author/owner.