Tag Archives: conversational skills

Polite Conversation

‘What ho!’ I said.

‘What ho!’ said Motty.

‘What ho! What ho!’

‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’

After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

-P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919) ‘Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest’

Yesterday, Aidan’s best friend of seven years was visiting at our house. In the spring, he moved three and a half hours away, so the boys don’t get to see each other very often. They talk a lot on the phone, but Aidan always looks forward to getting to spend some time with his friend when he’s in town. And yesterday, spur of the moment, he called right as Aidan was getting home from school. “I’m in town visiting my dad,” K said to me on the phone. “Is it okay if I come over for a bit?”

So Aidan and K had a blast hanging out and playing video games together. I threw in a pizza for dinner and called all three boys out to the table when it was ready. Nigel came out last, fresh off a movie in his room. He knew that K was visiting and greeted him as he sat down. I sat about fifteen feet away in the living room, reading.

They had barely taken two bites, presumably, when Nigel launched into some lengthy delayed echolalia. (Technically, these days it’s called ‘scripting,’ but ten years ago, when it was his primary means of communication, we didn’t have that terminology yet. Or at least I didn’t. His therapists called it ‘delayed echolalia,’ a term which has stuck with me.) I had no idea what was going on with him. He kept going on, rapidly reciting something in a strange tone of voice. Aidan and I, glancing at each other, were stunned by this monologue. Nigel often still says single lines from movies, or a couple lines of dialogue run together, but nothing this lengthy. Poor K was trying to nicely respond, to acknowledge Nigel and converse with him. He’s been at our house so many times over the years that he’s quite used to Nigel’s different way of communicating, but he wasn’t sure what to make of this. I decided to gently intervene.

“Nigel? What are you saying? You need to use your own words, okay?”

“I’m just making polite conversation!” he shot back. I’d be willing to bet money that this was also a line from something, just by the way he said it.

“When you’re having a conversation, it’s best to use your own words so that people know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t need to say things from movies,” Aidan added gently.

“It’s not from a movie! It’s from a book! Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!” he growled.

“Okay, well, how about if you just eat now?” I suggested. I really didn’t know what else to say. I knew he’d been reading that book (the original) for several weeks, but I had no idea he’d been memorizing it. And why the sudden inappropriate monologue? He’s done much shorter versions (of delayed echolalia) in the past when we’ve had multiple people at our house, or in unfamiliar situations, but I couldn’t figure out why he needed to do it last night. Was it a sign of a mini-regression? A conversational test on someone familiar? What gives?

I gave it a lot of thought, and then it hit me. It’s because he’s autistic, of course. His language development was extremely late and labored. The art of conversation is something that may always be out of his reach. Yes, he can communicate. At this point in his life, he usually does it fairly well. But communicating and conversing are two different skills, and the skill of conversing is something with which he will most likely continue to struggle.

We often say, “Two steps forward, one step back,” or a variation thereof.  I could choose to look at last night’s conversation attempt as a step back. But in reality I think it was sort of a side step, a lateral move. He was testing the waters. In fact, I talked to him about it later when we were alone, and he confirmed my theory.

“I just wanted to try something new. I thought it would be fun. K seemed to handle it fine.”

“Yes. That’s because he knows you really well. But it’s probably not a good idea to do that with people who don’t know you very well, because they won’t understand.”

“I just don’t feel like I could give it up.”

“You don’t have to give it up. Just try to only do it around people who know you well. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I think maybe it was a step forward after all.

Getting to Know an Autistic Teen

I got some funny searches this week: “100 count a Kindergarten,” “living in a car,” “angel of doom,” and “how to sew a wolf head.” But my favorite search this week was not, I presume, intended to be funny. And I want to give a big hug to the person who typed it in.

how to get to know an autistic teen

Wow! Doesn’t that renew your faith in humanity? Whoever you are, can we clone you? If more people wanted to get to know autistic teens, if more people realized that they have feelings and interests and personalities worth knowing and cared enough to find out how to achieve that, our kids would be a lot happier and so would we. And more people’s lives would be enhanced by knowing them. Because, verbal or not, they have a lot to offer.

So, how do you get to know an autistic teen? Your approach should depend somewhat on the teen’s communication ability. If you’re wanting to get to know a non-verbal autistic teen, your best bet is to contact the parents or caregiver first to find out what you can about the teen: likes, dislikes, things that might upset them. They might communicate with PECS or writing, or some other method. The important thing to remember is that, regardless of how they communicate, their receptive communication is usually much greater than their expressive, and autistic teens understand a lot more than people realize.

The following is a list of guidelines for getting to know an autistic teen:

  • Find out their interests, which may or may not include computers, Lego, science, history, movies, superheroes, movies about superheroes, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc. (Fellow parents, feel free to add to this list of interests in the comments!)
  • Don’t expect eye contact, handshakes, or hugs. At least not for a long time, in most cases.
  • Don’t use figures of speech, which tend to be confusing for literal-minded autistic teens.
  • Do expect many verbal autistic teens to speak in a monotone voice – it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested or are being rude. This type of voice is just a common trait of autistic teens.
  • Don’t expect terms of politeness. Autistic teens often forget to say thank you when you give them something, whether it’s a compliment or a gift or a piece of gum. If you ask “How are you?” they might say “Fine” but not reciprocate by asking the same of you. Conversational niceties are difficult for autistic teens to remember because most do not understand the purpose. Many try to remember to say them anyway.
  • Do be patient. Sometimes it takes a moment for the autistic teen to formulate a response.
  • Don’t expect them to talk for long periods of time in a conversational manner. You know how when someone trips a little, a friend might jokingly say, “Been walking long?” Well, some autistic teens haven’t been “talking long.” Mastering the art of conversation is something that many of them are still working on, and will continue to. They might likely end the conversation by bluntly saying, “I’m done talking now. Bye.” Again, they don’t mean to be rude. Don’t take it personally.
  • Do be aware, especially if talking outside, that autistic teens may react wildly to an insect that flies near them or to a sound that startles them or a sudden bright light in their eyes. Just accept that it’s part of who they are, and know that they can’t help it and they deal with it as best as they can.
  • Don’t feel slighted if you say hi to them in passing and they don’t respond. They’re so busy filtering all the sensory input of wherever they are and trying to organize their brain that a passing hello often won’t register until after you’ve passed them. Again, don’t take it personally. Really – they cannot help it. Many autistic teens also contend with face-blindness.
  • Do realize that even though an autistic teen may not show many facial expressions while interacting, most of them still want friends, and all of them have feelings. They probably really appreciate that you’re taking the time to get to know them and understand them, but they don’t know how to tell you that. Be persistent but respectful. They are worth it! And so are you. Take it from a parent of an autistic teen – we appreciate you more than words can say.