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Teaching an ASD child to converse

I replied, in my previous comment thread, to a comment, and then realized that I had more - I know this will come as a surprise to you all - to say.

One of the hallmarks of an ASD child and his general speech is that ASD children can talk non-stop for hours about the topics which interest them. Or obsess them. From an outsider's perspective, it's often hard to separate the two.

They frequently cannot talk about anything else. When my oldest was in elementary school, I could ask him about his school day, but by the time he crossed the threshold and entered the house, the last thing he wanted to talk about was school. At all. I therefore got a blank stare, when he was younger, or "it was fine" when he was older. That was the extent of the information I was given. For this reason, among others, I was in steady contact with his teachers in the early years.

My oldest was that variety of Aspergers which is precociously verbal. He taught himself to read in order to play The Incredible Machine and Diablo. He couldn't stand to wait for us to read things to him, in the first case (all of the level goals were of course in words), or wait for me to tell him what items the monsters had dropped, in the second.

He could talk about Diablo or the incredible machine for days. So I played the Incredible Machine and Diablo. We played Diablo together on the home network. I played video games before he was born, and after, so we had an interest in common.

The interest in common was very helpful in turning the exposition or monologue into a dialogue, because he wanted to talk about the things that interested him.

To a lesser extent, all children are like this. They want to be heard. ASD, non-ASD, they want to be heard. ASD children are developmentally much younger than normative children, and their social skills are therefore several years behind the curve. When other children are engaging in conversation, the ASD child will be engaging in monologue, because he is arrested at the 'want to be heard' level for far longer than the other children.

I was asked, by the parent of a five year old ASD boy, what I'd done to cause my nine year old son to converse. The prevailing thought is that it is neither healthy nor normal to allow an ASD child to monologue, and if the child is doing this, he must be stopped.

I'm afraid I disagree with this.

It did not make sense to me that you cut off your otherwise totally silent child anytime he starts to talk about fire-trucks. Those are the only things that interest him. If you cut him off, why should he want to speak at all? There's nothing to share.

I explained this at length:

I am not an expert in anything but my son. But I am an observer, and I remember - in bits and pieces - what being a child myself was like. The desire to be heard is a powerful incentive - for anyone. It's a useful incentive when you are trying to teach your child that discussion and interplay - the ability to both listen and converse, is fun. If it is not fun, it is a chore, and like any chore, it requires nagging for completion, and it is almost never done outside of that. It's work, not play.

So I let my son monologue about the things that interested him. Because I also played some of the games, I could then ask questions - within the framework of his interest - that he would sometimes answer. Sometimes became all the time as he stopped to think about my game-related questions, and to frame answers for them. A back and forth grew from that; the ability to converse grew from that. Was the conversation about his current obsession? Yes. But his incentive to engage in discussion was that excitement. Cutting that off would have made conversation almost pointless, for him.

We utilized his excitement and passion for his games to effectively teach him how to talk with, as opposed to to other people. Would he converse about anything else? No. Not immediately. Those other things weren't interesting to him. He had nothing to say about them. He could not generate small talk at all at that stage: he had nothing to say because he did not know anything about random, general subjects.

ASD children are often insecure; they are much more afraid to make mistakes and to get things wrong, even when there's no penalty for making a mistake. If you attempt to engage a younger ASD child - a verbal one - on a subject about which they know nothing, you're talking to a wall. Sometimes the wall is facing you, and sometimes it's not - but the end effect is the same. Talking about a honed interest is talking about something over which they feel they have knowledge. It's not nearly as inherently risky for them. They are unlikely to make mistakes or get things wrong.

So talking to them about their obsessions is talking to them in their comfort zones. Since you are, over the course of years, trying to teach them to converse, which they don't naturally do, you are asking for a change - and asking for a change like this in one of their comfort zones is possibly the easiest way to succeed. But it's not a full-stop 'change this right now' change; it's a gradual one.

When you begin to engage your young ASD children in this fashion, you are entering their domain. You are stepping onto their turf. It's the only way to be certain that they have a topic about which they feel they can talk at all. That knowledge & interest is your strongest tool. I think it's wrong to throw it away. If you have that as a tool, the child is keenly interested and therefore has incentive, and you can begin to change the framework of that interest while still engaging the child's desire. You can leverage his incentive.

Does this mean you will end up doing things that are not, at base, inherently interesting to you? Yes. In the beginning, yes it does, and this is hard. It's even harder when your ASD child is not your only child. But ASD children are not nearly as good at coming to your turf in the early years. They don't really see your turf at all.

My son did learn to converse using the subjects that might otherwise have been full-blown monologues without prompting and pushing on our part. We had to learn to converse about Diablo on his level (for me this was not hard). He talked to us. But when he started to finally meet kids who also played these games (which happened as he got older because parents of young children do not generally allow that much computer gaming in the house; when they have teens, they learn to choose other battles *wry g*), he was able to converse with them. They were his peers.

My son knew, because of the conversations he had with us at home, that if he found people who shared his interests, conversation was fun. In the early years, he was impatient, but because he was bursting with enthusiasm, he knew if he waited, he would be allowed to talk. And we did make him wait, as he got older, but when it was his turn, he could let loose. And did.

He learned, by this long, slow process, that talking could be fun. Talking involved other people. He did not learn, immediately, that listening and discussing could be fun, because most children do not inherently understand this; they want to be heard. But he did learn it. Did it take him longer than it took other children to learn this? Yes.

But he did. I remember when he was thirteen, and my husband and I would be discussing politics or newspaper articles or items of interest to the two of us - and we would be surprised when our son suddenly asked a question, and pulled up a chair. These were not topics of interest for him, and he had not introduced them to us.

But because we are, by and large, geeks, and because we had always involved ourselves to lesser and greater extents in the things that he found interesting, he believed that what we found interesting could be interesting, period, because our interests had so often coincided with his own.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
joycemocha
May. 25th, 2012 04:53 am (UTC)
Yep. Unfortunately, in my position as a teacher, I don't get enough time to listen to my kids. I do try to do that, and look for their interests. It's hard to do in this high stakes assessment era, which is annoying because seeing what blossoms out of the kids is one of the biggest rewards of teaching.
estara
May. 25th, 2012 09:54 am (UTC)
*nod*
msagara
May. 25th, 2012 07:14 pm (UTC)
It was the first thing my son’s grade one teacher did: she tried to make a connection to my son through his interests. I do understand that the lack of time makes this very, very hard; for my son’s grade one teacher, she also then had to deal with a parent who felt that she was unfairly giving time & privileges to my son (he was given extra computer time in the class) that her daughter was not also getting.
amber_fool
May. 27th, 2012 03:28 pm (UTC)
I think that's one of the saddest things about the increase in the standardized assessments everyone has to work towards. I graduated HS in the US in 2003, so I caught the beginning of it, but I also did the International Baccalaureate (which is a much better testing program, but I'd imagine much, much harder to grade) and didn't have near as much standardized stuff for the state and the national levels.

But even then, going back to elementary school, I had teachers that didn't listen to the individual kids and tried to just throw us all into the same bucket. Although there were a couple that had no idea what to do with me when I started climbing back out the other side of that bucket...But there's no way every student needs the same things or can be reached the same way. :(
lily_bless_her
May. 25th, 2012 08:51 am (UTC)
My Son and Heir Number 1 has spoken since he was 7 months old. He talks all the time. Sadly not about things that were easy to tlk about or more appropriately chat about. From age 3, he would not accept the simple version, but needed full explanations. Volcanos just didn't erupt, an explanation had to include tectonic plates. Water rushing down a drain had to include a full explanation of the workings of the drainage system. His peers did not understand his obsessions. As he grew older his chat became more about computer games - thankfully son and heir 2 grew to love the same computer games. I never made the mistake of switching off during his 'chats', you never knew what you had agreed to.He is able to turn any conversation to what he wants to talk about. He is an obsessive gamer - he belongs to role playing groups at uni and is even president of one! He is not easy. I once asked son and heir 2 how son and heir 1's girlfriend coped with the ranting ( politics, education, religion, gaming) he in his typical laconic style said 'she thinks he's cute'. Fantastic! He wasn't diagnosed with aspbergers when he was 15. But both my sons had been diagnosed with dysparaxia and dyslexia early on in their education, I was advised by a brilliant psychologist to just support them in their interests, both read late so he just said to get them what they are interested in whether it be the Beano or War and Peace, and that is what I have done and do....my house is full of Manga and fantasy books, DVD's of Red Dwarf, MontyPython (does nothing for me I remember it first time around), Black Books... If I don't know something I find out about it so I can talk to my son. He does find 'normal' life a challenge - he watches me when we are watching TV, so guage my reactions to everything.
Life has certainly been a challenge. But I am proud to say my children are all brightly coloured individuals in a plain and grey world. I wouldn't have it any other way. Both my sons are at University. I am so proud of them....now any tips on bringing up a 'normal' teen age daughter would be most appreciated! Now that is a challenge! At least she likes Manga and will sit through most psyfi stuff.
msagara
May. 25th, 2012 07:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this :).

I think, as long as our children can navigate society in a reasonable way - attend their classes, work if they are doing part-time jobs (and eventually full-time), there’s nothing wrong with the time they spend on their interests/hobbies. We all pretty much have hobbies and interests to a greater or lesser degree; many people endure work so they have the money to put toward hobbies.

I was advised by a brilliant psychologist to just support them in their interests, both read late so he just said to get them what they are interested in whether it be the Beano or War and Peace, and that is what I have done and do...

It’s how to encourage any child to read, IMHO. If you let them read things that interest them - anything, manga, comics, my pretty pony - they learn that reading is fun. It’s not a hated activity, but a go-to activity. As they get older, their reading tastes will naturally broaden, because on a visceral level reading is a ‘good’ activity, not homework.
birdhousefrog
May. 25th, 2012 11:01 am (UTC)
I would have to agree, looking back, with what you're saying. Thankfully, my daughter's first interest was her cat and my husband and I are cat lovers. It was all she would talk about, all she could talk about, for years. Intensive therapy has made conversing with others easier. She wasn't a big monologuer. I think all conversation was difficult, due to some other issues. But she will always have that fear of doing something "wrong" I think. I know I've never completely lost it. And the initial floor play? It was, as you said, excruciating for me to do. I had to marry off her stuffed animals to each other in order to engage her attention. But eventually, her stories grew beyond that and became more complex. I thought it was me until another parent confessed they just couldn't do it. (I had a standing weekly appt with a psychologist to FORCE myself to do floor play with her.) At 12, all issues aren't ironed out, but I'm not longer constantly on edge about her ability to manage in a school situation. She's coping. It would be nice if she could find other kids with similar interests who can be friends, but I think we'll have to wait a bit longer for that.

Oz
msagara
May. 25th, 2012 07:25 pm (UTC)
And the initial floor play? It was, as you said, excruciating for me to do. I had to marry off her stuffed animals to each other in order to engage her attention. But eventually, her stories grew beyond that and became more complex. I thought it was me until another parent confessed they just couldn't do it.

Even the parents who look joyous and fully engaged in repetitive activities do find it a struggle. It wasn’t just you; interacting on the level of a child, almost as a child, is hard for adults. If there are twenty things that we, as ‘good’ parents should do, and we manage to do half of them with cheer and energy, I consider that a huge personal win.

There are also things I did not think of until my son was older. It’s the big advantage - if you have the opportunity, and frankly, so many of us don’t - to having other adults engaged: they think in ways I don’t. They come up with solutions that didn’t occur to me.

Also: child time - and I remember this from being six - seems so elongated. I remember summer vacation lasting forever. I was dismayed, in high school, to see forever flash past in the blink of an eye.
la_marquise_de_
May. 25th, 2012 12:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
msagara
May. 25th, 2012 07:26 pm (UTC)
And can I just bounce that ‘thank you’ back?

I tend to write various posts because they have claws in my mind, but I’m often less certain that they’re of interest to people because people frequently don’t post :)
la_marquise_de_
May. 25th, 2012 07:31 pm (UTC)
I am always interested in what you post. :-)
boojum
May. 29th, 2012 06:54 am (UTC)
I've been reading your posts about your son with great interest, but I frequently don't have much to say in response. I love any sort of geeking out about how people are put together, and I think it's really admirable that you took the time to work through what would work for your son as who he is, not as a Platonic ideal of a child, or even a Platonic ideal of your child. I don't have any stories to offer in response, though, so I've just been reading.
msagara
May. 29th, 2012 07:01 am (UTC)
I've been reading your posts about your son with great interest, but I frequently don't have much to say in response.

It’s fine :). I often lurk elsewhere, and I’ll post if someone hasn’t already said whatever I might say. My husband told me “there’s not a lot to add”, and sometimes I wonder if that means I’m cutting people off from commenting somehow (he says no. He is used to living with writers, who sometimes fret).
capplor
May. 25th, 2012 01:10 pm (UTC)
I've heard this song before
"The Chinese believe there are stages to development, and trying to force a child to the next stage too soon will damage them" -- Pearl Buck in "My Several Worlds"

"Why should not a mentally retarded child not EVENTUALLY catch up, except that they are constantly chastised for non-age appropriate behavior and learn to fear to try anything new." -- John Holt in "How Children Fail"

"And thus a potential dyslexic becomes a real one, by being forced into a learning mode that is totally unnatural for him" -- "The Gift of Dyslexia"

(All quotes are approximate from memory. All citations are real)

Edited at 2012-05-25 01:11 pm (UTC)
mme_hardy
May. 25th, 2012 03:04 pm (UTC)
I applaud wildly. I also think this applies to non-ASD children -- if you follow their interests, not just what you think their interests should be, they learn that their opinions matter. One of my children's reading programs tried to keep children from focusing in on their interests: you had to read one nonfiction, one fiction, one biography, over and over, to progress. In my opinion, a passionate reader is somebody who gets to read every damn Egypt book in the library, not somebody who is forced to read two other books before returning to his/her interest.

But back to your point: meet the child where he/she is, on the common ground you have. My severely anxious child talked passionately and fluently about games, so that's what we talked about.

By the way, I loved your newest book, and I loved the sympathetic and truthful picture of the ASD kid -- integrated into his group of friends, but with acknowledgements of his skills and lack thereof. I loved the protagonist dashing down the hall to warn him about the substitute teacher.
controuble
May. 25th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
Because I also played some of the games, I could then ask questions
I actually had less trouble talking to him before he discovered (was introduced to) GameBoy and Pokemon (I think he was in 3rd grade by then.) He used to read the encyclopedia and the science annuals for it and books on animals. Those I could relate to, but I was never a gamer of any kind, just a reader. When he decided he liked mysteries (in second grade), I was happy to buy him a complete set of Hardy Boys - he devoured them in less than three weeks - all 59 books!

Now he has discovered comics, as well, and you should hear how indignant he gets if I confuse a DC character with a Marvel character. He knows I'm a reader, so assumes I have read (and memorized) them all. Soooo not my cup of tea.

parents of young children do not generally allow that much computer gaming in the house
How much is that much?
msagara
May. 25th, 2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
Now he has discovered comics, as well, and you should hear how indignant he gets if I confuse a DC character with a Marvel character. He knows I'm a reader, so assumes I have read (and memorized) them all. Soooo not my cup of tea.

Oh! I know this one!

When my son was (much) younger, he would fly into a raging despair if I could not, for instance, identify a level of LEMMINGS by the theme music. He would hum the music, and I would have no idea which level was attached to which it was and he would get so frustrated because I’d played it.

Also? He knew the names of all the sword techniques in Rurouni Kenshin, and again - he was flabbergasted that I did not immediately know the episodes in which they had first occurred because we had watched them all together.

It took some time to explain to him that as we were not the same person, we processed information differently. But one of the ways in which we made this clear was to make (affectionate) fun of the fact we could forget everything. It emphasized certain (perceived) deficiencies in a non-threatening way.

We could also point out that he in fact that huge blind spots himself, but again, separately, and not as part of the argument incident. If he did actually lose his temper, nothing we said or did could get through. If we caught him before he lost it, we could divert.

Even when he was a teenager, diversion worked.

One night he was in a foul mood and therefore more inclined to take things personally, and he and I were heading into the downward spiral of two angry people in a small space. We had visitors, it was just after dinner, and my tone had already sharpened. As had his.

And then I said, “Look Gary --” and stopped (Gary is my brother’s name. Not my son’s). I frequently call my son by my brother’s name if he is doing certain things, sadly. It’s a source of humor in the house (as in, people laugh at me when I do it).

So there was a two second gap of silence, and then the son laughed. So did everyone else. I had not done this on purpose - I was annoyed as well - but the minute it happened, it cut tension, and the laughter diverted what had looked like an inevitable, if rare, blowup.

How much is that much?

Any, at least in these parts. When they were in grade six, almost all of the boys were playing computer games, but in grade one, zero. Except my son.
mythusmage
May. 25th, 2012 10:20 pm (UTC)
One thing that's helped me as an aspie is learning how to make things interesting. Just because it fascinates you don't mean it'll make others interested in it, unless you make it interesting.

So no monotones, no dull unvarying speaking; talk like it matters, and listen to people.You need to convince the audience that this is interesting stuff, and that means paying attention to what they're telling you.
msagara
May. 27th, 2012 08:14 am (UTC)
One thing that's helped me as an aspie is learning how to make things interesting. Just because it fascinates you don't mean it'll make others interested in it, unless you make it interesting.

Out of curiosity, when did you learn this? It’s something that my son could not understand when he was young - too much theory of mind, too much certainty that the ‘interesting’ part of the topic was inherent in the topic and not in its presentation, but does understand now, in part because he can examine what he finds interesting, and why, if that makes sense?
(Anonymous)
May. 27th, 2012 05:23 pm (UTC)
It took years. But two things that helped were my time in theater, and being told by another resident to the crisis house I was in at the time that I had the habit of talking at people instead of to them. I habit I work on overcoming every time I talk to folks. Pendant mode I like to call it, and one that impedes communication something terrible.
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