LEarning small talk for those with autism using question starters

Small Talk Can Loom Large: Teaching your child the flow of conversation

At a holiday gathering, your 8-year-old son is telling his aunt exactly how he went about constructing a complicated Lego spaceship. He spares no detail as Aunt Ann smiles and nods, eyes glazing over. You walk over to join them and try to help him become aware of her nonverbal clues and wrap up his one-sided conversation.  With no success, you ask if Aunt Ann wants to try the wine and cheese in the next room. “I didn’t even get to the engine,” your son grumbles.

Small talk sounds easy enough, but it can be a challenge for those who struggle with social communication. A two-way conversation can quickly end in awkward silence, embarrassment or can become one-sided.

If your child has difficulty with perspective taking (understanding the thoughts and feelings of others), it’s likely that conversational skills don’t come easily. With practice, your child can develop awareness of topics that other people might want to talk about by “reading” social clues based on what they already know about the person (e.g., Uncle Dave loves to ski), what they’ve heard the person talking about already (e.g., their dog), or what the person is wearing (e.g., a Star Wars t-shirt). Practicing these skills at home or in the community with people your child already knows well will increase the child’s ease with people he/she doesn’t see very often.

Seven tips on developing small talk for those with autism

The following tips and suggestions from my book Make Social Learning Stick! may help your child feel comfortable talking with whoever shows up at the party or dinner table:

1. Social Spying: When you’re out in the community, ask your child to observe other people and try to infer what the person might be interested in or how people are related or connected to one another.  Learning to make guesses about others helps in finding good topics of conversation.

2. Topics for Small Talk: Help your child make a list of topics that most people like to talk about in shorter conversations (e.g., the weather, learning what the person is doing at school, work or in other activities, asking questions about what is going on in their life, a new pet or sport, etc.).

3. Conversation Cards: Create cards with open-ended questions like, “What was the best (or worst) part of your day?” or “What’s your favorite movie and why?”  Place them in the middle of the dinner table and take turns picking up a card and posing a question.  Practicing at home will make it easier to converse with people who are less familiar.

4. Conversation Cards at a Holiday Meal: People of different generations can get to know one another better as they take turns answering questions about their lives.  For example, ask about a person’s favorite vacation or first pet or a favorite movie.

5. Wonder Questions: “Wh” questions (who, what, why, etc.) are good conversation starters.  Make a visual cue or prompt to remind your child of these words and practice using them at home during family meals.Feel free to copy and use the visual from my book Make Social Learning Stick! 

6. Neighborhood Chats: Walk around the neighborhood with your child and greet people you know.  As you converse with neighbors, try to include your child in the discussion.  Prepare for the walks by coming up with questions to ask neighbors like, “How are you today?” or “Did you enjoy your weekend?”

7. Car Talk: Some kids prefer to talk in the car, where they don’t have to worry about direct eye contact or body language.  Use car trips to practice making conversation.

As the holidays approach, it’s a perfect time to work on conversational skills. Social gatherings, at this time of year, are usually times when loved ones gather and can support and reinforce practicing these skills with a range of different people in a fun and safe environment. Learning to think about others, read the social situation, and become socially adept is a valuable skill not only at family gatherings, but also at school, work, and almost everywhere else.

Author: Elizabeth Sautter is the author of Whole Body Listening Larry (Home and School version) and Make Social Learning Stick. She also frequently teaches workshops on social learning for the Autism Awareness Centre.

Other resources for teaching conversation:

How to start, carry on and end conversations – Scripts for social situations for people on the autism spectrum

Talk with Me: A Step-by-Step Conversation Framework for Teaching Conversational Balance and Fluency for High-Functioning Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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