If you have or work with a child on the autistic spectrum, you’ve probably had the following dilemma: Your child starts talking about a topic they’re interested in, let’s say airplanes. The conversation may start with one or two interesting facts about airplanes, but pretty soon, it transitions into a monologue without any end in sight. Here is where the dilemma comes in: Do you intervene, and let the child know that not everyone is as interested in planes as they are? Or do you encourage the child to continue by asking questions and encouraging engagement?
Both options have their drawbacks. Children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) often have difficulty engaging with others socially, and it’s possible that discouraging the child from talking about a specific topic could further turn them off from social engagement. On the other hand, topic and conversation dominance can alienate listeners and exacerbate trouble connecting with peers. So what is a parent or teacher to do? A recent article by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) offers some advice on how to handle this tricky situation.
One of the first steps to helping a child on the spectrum learn conversational dynamics, is encouraging perspective taking. Difficulty recognizing others’ point of view is a common problem for kids with ASD, and this contributes to conversational dominance. Since the child is so fascinated with their topic of choice, their first instinct is to assume others are equally interested. Working on “theory of mind” or the concept that others think differently than you do, is a great way to build a foundation for more interactive conversational skills. Try giving an example of a topic your child doesn’t find interesting, and have a conversation about how they’d feel if a friend talked about that topic for a really long time. Watching and analyzing videos of other people modeling conversations can be helpful too.
ASHA also recommends the “connect and redirect” method. Listen to and acknowledge what your child has to say. Then, try to use what they’ve said to bridge into a different topic. For example, you might say, “I can see you really like planes. I love taking planes when I go on vacation. Where did you go on your last vacation?” If the first attempt doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to try several different approaches.
Topic and conversation dominance can be a struggle for kids on the spectrum. But a safe space to explore conversational dynamics and some gentle but direct guidance can help kids move forward.
Do you have a child with ASD? How do you handle topic and conversational dominance? Share your story in the comments section below!
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