Several family members of individuals with autism have asked for ideas for carrying on conversations with individuals with autism who are non-verbal or who only echo what has just been said to them. A volunteer who has begun giving rides to a young adult with autism to a weekly recreational event echoed similar concerns when she said, “I’m not certain what to say to my new friend since he isn’t able to talk.”
It can certainly be challenging to converse with a person who does not talk or who echoes words or phrases. At the same time, our friends cannot exist in a social vacuum, so we need to take some purposeful steps to get in the habit of frequent casual conversation.
The primary strategy is to just continue a casual conversation as if the person understands every word we say. Take time throughout the day – at meals, in the car, on walks, when swinging on the porch – to talk about what you see and hear and feel. Talk about events of the day, about plans for tomorrow, and about upcoming special events.
Photos make good conversation topics. While looking at pictures, talk about acquaintances and about past experiences at school, camp, birthday parties, family gatherings, vacations, and other events. Also take advantage of other experiences to talk about. Read books, magazines, and newspapers together. Go to sporting events or car shows or flea markets or fireworks displays or walks on the beach or other conversation starters. Even taking a walk around the block or watering plants together gives you a topic of conversation.
Talk about events in your day, about your opinions, and about your dreams. Don’t worry about whether or not your friend with autism understands all that you say. Your goal is to make a connection, develop a relationship, and keep the pipelines open for personal interaction. And remember to be silent sometimes – you don’t need to fill all the spaces in the conversation.
Note to FAQautism.com listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. www.FAQautism.com