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Conversation—Making the Jump from Monologues to Dialogues With Autism

October 11, 2023

I am a speech language pathologist who spends the bulk of my day coaching social skills with people on the spectrum. I say lovingly (my heart is BIG for neurodiverse communication) that I have been talked “at” more times than I can count in my office. I wish we could all talk about our interests with such zest and passion.

Conversation-Making the Jump from Monologues to Dialogues With Autism

I’ve heard so many stories that would likely persist even without my participation. This is the monologue.

C’mon, dialogues! How can we help our loved one make the jump from a one-sided conversation to a reciprocated experience?

This skill is valuable and promotes positive relationships with peers (both friends and dating experiences) and adults (teachers, future bosses, etc.).

It’s also shockingly complex. A monologue can be planned and executed without interruption. Dialogues are unpredictable and can pivot quickly; they require flexibility.

Here are some tools to help spark the transition:

Start to increase awareness of monologue moments

I’ve yet to work with someone who is intentionally trying to dominate the conversation. Generally, the person has a story he/she desperately wants to share but does not yet have the tools to guide a conversation in the direction of his/her targeted topic.

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He/She may also be frequently interrupted or ignored by peers, only intensifying the need to share his/her thoughts. Initially, many people have limited awareness of the moment they are stuck in a monologue

TIPS:I may ask the person to chart how much talking each person did during the conversation, prompt him/her to recall who asked what questions, ask him/her for what clues he/she followed that let him/her know the other person was listening? Design questions that kindly increase awareness of what a two-sided conversation looks like.

Think out loud

The art of sharing the story you want to share is complex. There are several hidden rules surrounding the social protocol for talking about yourself. The general rule is that it is acceptable when someone asks you the question. Telling your own story, unsolicited, may feel off-topic or domineering to the conversation partner.

TIPS: When preparing to go see a friend, think out loud with your child present. “Oh, I can’t wait to tell ____ about our weekend trip. I’ll probably ask her some questions about her weekend first. I might ask her some questions about any upcoming trips…” If your child is bursting to share an exciting story with a friend, help him/her map some ideas for how to direct the conversation in that direction.

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Break down some of the rules of conversation, through a (flexible!) fairness lens

The best conversations are a reciprocated experience. In order for both sides to feel good about the outcome, there needs to be some balance in asking and responding to questions, checking in for social engagement from the other person, and using the information you know about the other person to help him/her feel included. Conversations are rarely an even 50/50 split of talking time, but they also shouldn’t be a 90/10 split.

TIPS: Reflect on conversations together. “I can tell you really like to talk to _____, he/she asked some interesting questions, didn’t they?” “I could tell he/she was really engaged in your story” “What stories did he/she share/what questions did you ask him/her?”

Provide feedback

Working on a new skill is hard! Honest, kind feedback can help your child fine-tune this new skill. While it’s important to be supportive, it’s equally important to help your child grow by creating a learning opportunity.

TIPS: Draw attention to the moments you know your child is working on asking questions—even when the skill is not executed perfectly. (“Wow, it really feels like you’re paying attention with those great questions.”) Also, make note of growth opportunities. (“Wow! Great story, but it feels like you’ve been talking for a long time. Any ideas for how to include me in the conversation?”) I often use humor to highlight these moments and to keep practice lighthearted. You know your person, so be kind while maintaining honesty.

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Conversational skills are challenging! Set the bar high. As our children grow and learn more about their social worlds, new opportunities present to build on their skills. Remember to model the behavior you hope to see from your kids and create those safe practice opportunities. You’ve got this.

This article was featured in Issue 102 – Supporting ASD Needs Everyday

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