Communicating for Friendships, College and Career with Autism and Asperger’s

Teens and young adults with autism or Asperger’s may have basic communication skills but can miss the nuances that help them develop friendships and careers.  They may talk too much, stand too close, avoid eye contact, or appear self-centered.  But they can improve.  Here’s how to help teens or adults in your family or classroom:

1. Create a  “talking stone” as a teaching tool.  Paint a flat rock with the phrase “your turn” on one side and “ask a question” on the other.  Use the stone to prompt your teen to ask questions and keep the conversation going, rather than dominating with a monologue.

2. Role play conversations ahead of time.  Let’s say the teen will be selling cookies at an autism awareness event.   What questions will people ask, and how will the teen or adult respond?  What if a stranger expresses surprise that the teen is autistic?

Role playing can be especially powerful if the conversation is videotaped and reviewed afterwards.  Begin by doing a trial run of the conversation, then do it again and tape it.  Point out great interactions.  Look for appropriate gestures, good eye contact, and ability to listen without interrupting.  Encourage speech that’s not too fast in a lively tone with highs and lows instead of monotone.  Help the teen or adult show his ideas, insight, and creativity.

3. The old adage “watch one, do one and teach one” works for individuals on the autism spectrum.  They are often able to provide instructions and help others with conversational turn-taking skills when they are put in charge and given a set of rules about what to teach about good communcation.  Look for opportunities for your teen to be the teacher, perhaps instructing younger students on the autism spectrum.

4. Interviews for college or jobs are milestone events that can require a lot of preparation.  This guidance is critical because people with Asperger’s or autism may have intense interests, but presenting themselves well to colleges or employers isn’t necessarily one of them.  They may  tell you they understand they need to do it, but actually doing it is another matter.  That's true of all teens, of course, but it’s even more pronounced with those on the autism spectrum.  The “teenage mode”  for this group can last until the mid-20s or longer.

Make the teen or young adult the “project manager” for the interview with your guidance.  Say that you’ll make a timeline together of the steps that need to get done, then meet regularly to make sure all is on track.  Big steps might include writing a resume and creating a portfolio of past work. Break these down into manageable tasks.  Help your teen or young adult view this process as a project that requires dedicated time.  You and others will work together to give the teen encouragement and feedback.

We’re much more aware now than a generation ago how successful people with autism and Asperger’s can be.  Developing communication skills is a means to reaching those goals of friendships, college or career.

4 Ways to Improve Communication Skills in Young Children with Autism

One prominent characteristic of autism and Asperger’s syndrome is difficulty with communication.  But children with these disorders can learn to communicate and interact with others in more meaningful ways.  Try these strategies to nurture their communication skills.

1. Communication at its most basic is sustained attention with another person, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes.  This attention can evolve to a shared focus and interaction and then conversation.

Start by finding something that grabs the child’s attention.  If he likes to play with small balls,  you might practice pouring the balls or lining them up.  Be animated while you play with the balls in new and novel ways.

In brain training sessions, I might take beads and find ten different ways to play with them, such as threading the beads on and off a string or creating an obstacle course to drive little cars through.

2.  Use this play to create opportunities for taking turns, which is a fundamental part of communication.  Signal by facial expressions, gestures, words and waiting that it’s the child’s turn to play, then your turn.  Be an actor.  Use dramatic facial expressions and hold them a few seconds longer than normal so the child understands.

It’s possible to do this even with children who are non-verbal.  Try throwing a ball or pushing a car back and forth.  Older children may enjoy building with blocks or playing games that require turns, such as tic tac toe.  The goal is simple: to help the child initiate a task on his own and be able to wait for the next person to participate.

3. For non-verbal children or those with very limited language, sound effects can reinforce the idea that speech allows you to forge a bond with another person.  Gradually pair physical turn-taking with a sound.  I might say "Oooo!" in high pitch.  When playing with beads, I’d call out  "On, on, on!" and "Off, off" as we string them.  Use sounds or words that are repetitive.  Have fun saying the phrases with different inflections.

Use this technique to advance a child’s understanding.  If the child only points to communicate, I point and use sound effects.  If the child makes sounds, I’ll use single words.  Just as a baby learns language through imitation, a child hears these sounds and can start to shape them for himself.

4. For children with milder autism or Asperger’s, combining physical activities with turn-taking speech is helpful.  Younger children may enjoy working with puppets.  Your puppet might hug or kiss a stuffed dog, then suggest the child’s puppet to do the same. Whether it’s having the puppets clap, fly, bounce or take a nap, encourage imitation, Talk about what the puppets are doing and their emotions: "My puppet is showing love by gently hugging the dog. Now can you make your puppet show love to the dog?"

For children in third grade through middle school, make up simple comic strips.  Ask the child to create or pick out a character who meets someone.  Talk about what they’d say.  Write out the dialogue in "bubbles."  See if you can keep the same characters going from week to week.

These techniques will take patience.  But I’ve seen them work, as part of a full treatment plan, to transform a non-verbal child into one who uses sounds, and a child using only sounds into one who speaks.