Teaching Conversation Skills

Today’s guest post is from Karen Michelle Graham. I met her at a writer’s conference and when she told me about this technique from her book (about healing her son from autism) I asked her to write a guest post about it.

There are two kinds of children who I think could benefit from this technique: 

  • children in the autism spectrum, especially those with Asperger’s 
  • any child who has a hard time making conversation (one of my sons struggles with this)

We played this “conversation game” with our kids during the holidays and it actually helped them be much more polite in talking with Grandma, getting them to think about asking questions and interacting better.

Here is Karen’s technique, which we called ”The Conversation Game.”

One of the keys to a successful program for my son was teaching him the power of reciprocating language…the give and take of conversation that we take for granted. We started with small manageable units. Here are just a few of the basic steps out of many.

Step 1. We taught our son to answer simple social questions.
(Some prerequisites were taught before this step such as following simple commands, receptively label body parts (head, nose feet, tummy eyes, legs), action verb commands, matching, verbal imitation … to name a few. He progressed to more complicated questions and situations.)

For example:

  • What is your name?
  • How old are you?
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • What is your dad’s name?
  • What is your mom’s name?
  • What is your address?
  • What is your phone number?

Add you own questions. Come up with at least fifteen.

We prompted my son for the answer. (Fade the prompts as soon as possible.) We taught him in his room, and then had other people ask the same question. Then we made sure he generalized the knowledge by asking the question in diverse locations by various people.

When we taught, “Who loves you?”, we taught him to respond, “Mommy and Daddy.” When he generalized this question, he answered with a long list of people he believed loved him like his sister and therapists. I think this is so sweet.

Come up with rewards when a correct answer is given.
For example: verbal praise, hugs, tickles, balloons, and noisemaker. Be sure to adjust the reward to what means something to your child. When you give verbal praise, be as specific as possible.

Charity’s Note: For our game, because we were eating dinner at the time, we started with the question, “Do you like chicken?” The kids had to make eye contact (instead of the usual mumbling into their laps) and respond politely. (I think we had them say, “Yes, I do,” or “it’s not my favorite.” Something other than, “No, I hate it.”)

Step 2: Simple Statement
We taught my son to respond to a statement with a simple statement of his own.
Therapist: I like Spiderman.
Child: I like Superman.

Charity’s Note: We practiced like this:
Mom: I like chicken.
Child: I like carrots. (or whatever else was on the table they liked.)

Step 3. Statement/Statement/Question

This taught my son to ask a question back to the other person. Here is an example of how this works:
Therapist: I like Spiderman.
Child: I like Superman. Do you like Superman?
(The therapist answers spontaneously. Usually, “yes, he is cool,” Or something equally encouraging.)

When we taught the question piece of the drill, we modeled it. Though some children do not respond to modeling, many will, and it is a good technique.

Charity’s Note: Here’s what we did:
Grandma: Do you like chicken?
Child: Yes, I like chicken. Do you like chicken?
Then they looked at Grandma and waited for the answer.
Next, we modeled a polite answer to an open-ended question and asking a reciprocal question. I think my mom and I did it to each other to show them the example. Then they had a turn.
Grandma: How was your day?
Child: (Gave polite answer, making eye contact.) How was your day?
So many good manners flying about. I think Emily Post would be proud. :)

The above programs are just small examples of the many things we taught our son…it had a powerful effect in jumpstarting his language and propelling him toward more complex conversation skills.
Teaching my son was like building a house… this is just one of the key pieces I loved watching him bloom and grow with.

Karen Michelle Graham is the author of A Life to Rescue: The True Story of a Child Freed from the Bonds of Autism. To order the book or read more (such as Autism, Guilt, & Blame—Autism & Tantrums—Autism & Stress) visit her blog at  www.aLifetoRescue.com.

Do your children struggle with social skills or polite conversation? What did you do to help them learn these skills?

For those who are using this technique for autism therapy, Karen included this example chart to show how to document progress.

Date Teacher
Question / Statement Prompt? Results
11/12 Mom What is your name? w/ prompt 4/5
11/13 Dad What is your name? w/out prompt 5/5

2 thoughts on “Teaching Conversation Skills

  1. Hi Jenna, Thanks! It does seem like common sense to us, but somehow those little ones sometimes need to be taught! I have a feeling girls intuitively do this more than boys. Thanks for stopping by! :)