Sunday, October 31, 2010


Once the students in my social group were really learning to carry on conversations without much input or instruction from me, I decided to try something new. It was football season in the U.S. so I borrowed one of the aspects of football for the social group, or as one student called it, our 'conversation workshop'. They were told they could talk about anything they wanted to as long as it was appropriate for school. They were to follow all the rules of conversation. If one of them broke a rule of polite conversation, I the referee, would throw a flag (a handkerchief) on the play. When the penalty flag was thrown into the center of the table they had to stop talking and figure out who caused the penalty and what the penalty was. Of course there was no real punishment or penalty involved. This was just a visual strategy to help them be aware of what they were doing. It worked really well. They had fun and learned to monitor their own behavior a little.          

Thursday, October 28, 2010


            Children with ASD often blurt out random comments when they don't really know what to say or how to join the conversation. This is both frustrating and confusing for the listener. It's hard to talk with someone when you feel they aren't listening to you or when they continue to talk about the same thing over and over
            You can help your child learn to stay on topic by teaching him to really listen to what the speaker is saying. When you listen to someone telling a story you can usually pick out two things from the conversation that you could talk about without getting off topic. For example, if your friend is talking about the time he went to the beach and saw a shark, you could talk about sharks by telling about something you saw on TV or read in a book or you could talk about something you saw one time when you went to the beach. So from that conversation you can pick out “beach” or “shark” and start talking about something about one of those two subjects.  Or he could ask a question about something he heard the person say, such as, “Was the shark really close to the shore?” or “Do you know what type of shark you saw?” Explain that by asking their friend questions about what they are saying we show we are listening. And being a good listener helps us make friends.             

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


            When I conduct social groups at school I like to ask my students,  “What are some of the rules of polite conversation?” This gives the students an opportunity to offer their ideas and opinions, and gives me some information about what the children already know. In my experience, kids often know most of the rules, but have trouble following them in real life conversations. We write these rules on a white board. You can write them on whatever you have at home but everyone should be able to see these rules at all times.  Having a visual reference is very helpful for kids with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).  Here is a sample list of rules of conversation. Please feel free to add anything that applies to your family. Make each lesson your own.

Don't talk when someone else is talking

Look at the speaker/look at the person you are talking to

Stay on topic

Don't hog the conversation

Only talk about appropriate subjects

Use a soft or inside voice / no yelling    

            If your family tends to talk over one another you may need to use an object to let everyone know whose turn it is to talk. You can use anything. I have used a stuffed chicken, a plastic bug, or a stick. Let your kids decide what to use. This will get them involved in all aspects of the lesson.  You can use a different object each day or use the same one each time, whatever your family prefers. Let everyone get used to having a conversation this way.  It seems awkward at first but it is very effective for teaching kids to wait their turn to join the conversation. If someone does interrupt you can say, “Are you holding the chicken?” When the child says no then you can say,   “It will be your turn to talk in a minute. You can wait.”
            Once your family is doing a good job of taking turns talking, stop using the object.  If they begin forgetting to take turns, quietly bring the object back out and hand it to the person who should be talking. This should act as a silent and visual reminder for them to wait their turn. Always begin the conversation without the object anywhere in sight and bring it out only if needed. Eventually you should all be able to get through a conversation without needing the object. If your family has a big problem with interrupting each other, focus on that alone until you get it under control before moving on to another rule. You only want to focus on one or two skills at a time. Otherwise it may be too difficult and overwhelming for your child.
            So....what in the world are we going to talk about? Talk about anything that is of interest to your family, but try to give everyone a chance to talk about something they find interesting for a short time. You can start by asking questions like:

What was your favorite part of the day/vacation/movie etc....
What's the funniest thing that happened to you today?
What's the worst thing that happened to you today? 

When you are ready to have more sophisticated conversations talk about something you saw on TV or read in the paper.  I purchased a CHAT PACK at a local toy store and I've used it for social groups at school and home as well as something fun to do on a car trip. It's the size of a deck of cards. It contains 156 cards and each card has a question printed on it. It is a great way to have a fun conversation with people of all ages. The questions make you think and make for a lively and funny conversation.

Friday, October 22, 2010


 We have all been embarrassed by something our children have said in public. When they are little they don't realize that they are being impolite. They are just saying what pops into their precious little heads. I went grocery shopping with my daughter when she was about three years old. She saw a cute little baby girl sitting in a cart. Her proud father was pushing the cart and shopping. My daughter looked at him and said, "Your baby has her ears pierced." He replied, "Yes she does". So my daughter exclaimed, "Jeepers Mister! That's not a good idea!" I quickly apologized to the offended stranger and then she yelled, "But Mommy that's what you said!”

She was right. I did say that a few weeks before. I wasn't talking about the man in the store or his baby though. She asked me why I didn't have her ears pierced when she was a baby and I simply said because I didn't think it was a good idea. If you are a parent something similar has probably happened to you at least once.

Neurotypical children usually learn not to say everything that pops in their heads. It's one of those life lessons that develops with age and a little instruction. Sometimes children with ASD really struggle with this. They can make a very innocent observation and say something that is terribly offensive. They are not trying to hurt anyone's feelings. They just haven't learned what can be said out loud and what they should keep to themselves. To address this issue I like to use what I call my Mr. Coffee lesson.

Pull out your coffee maker and show him how it works. Show him where you put the filter and the coffee grounds and show him how the water goes through the filter and becomes delicious hot coffee. Now show him what's left in the filter after the coffee is made. The coffee maker keeps the strong offensive grounds in the filter but allows the pleasant warm coffee to come through.

We can learn to do the same thing. Anything that pops into our brain is OK. We can think anything we want. But we should only let the good things come out in our speech. Therefore we filter our thoughts just like we filter our coffee. To filter our thoughts we need to ask ourselves some questions. If the answer is yes to any of the questions we should not say what we are thinking. We should say something different or nothing at all. You can write the following questions on a coffee filter as a visual reminder.

1. If I say this will it hurt the person's feelings or make them sad or angry?
2. Is this something they already know?
3. Would I be upset if someone said this to me?

Present your child with various examples and ask him what he might say in this situation. If what he says is inappropriate tell him to filter it and try again. People with ASD are not always able to understand how another person is feeling. Their brain doesn't always work that way. They often have to be taught how to put themselves in another person's place.

 The coffee filter may be a useful tool in accomplishing this. Try not to take inappropriate comments or behaviors personally. Your child on the spectrum is probably just making an observation or repeating something he's heard. These moments are opportunities to teach a social lesson.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


          We've all experienced what Jerry Seinfeld referred to as a “close talker”.  My daughter used to have a friend whose mother would get so close to my face when she was talking to me that I could actually feel her breath on my face. My instant reflex was to take a couple steps back but then she would step forward.  I kept backing up with her moving toward me until I was backed into a wall or piece of furniture. With nowhere else to go I was forced to stand there with this woman in my face until she finished speaking.  At one point she got so close I was afraid she was going to kiss me!  What on earth was wrong with her?  Did she not realize that she was making me a nervous wreck?  I honestly don’t believe she understood the way I was feeling, but I avoided her whenever possible.  I had absolutely no desire to be this woman's friend.  I wrote her off in my mind as a possible friend for one reason.  She stood too close to me when she talked and it really freaked me out.  She did not have bad breath.  She smelled fine.  She was what I would consider to be a very normal person in every way.  Except for the fact that she got too close to me when we talked there was nothing wrong with her.  But the closeness of her face to mine made me so uncomfortable I was miserable. 
          I'm not proud of the fact that something this small could make me not want to be someone's friend.  But this doesn't make me a bad person.  It makes me human.  Most of us are uncomfortable when someone invades our personal space. Some people tolerate it better than others.  But as parents and therapists for kids with ASD we need to address this issue.
          Many kids struggle with personal space issues. You can't see someone's personal space.  It is implied.  This concept is too abstract for many of our friends on the spectrum.  We have to create a way for them to understand what we mean by personal space.  We also need to explain how we feel when someone is in our space.  Your child may feel differently than you do when someone is in his space.  Ask him how he feels.  Talk about it.  If he says he doesn’t know, get in his personal space and ask, ‘how does this feel?’  ‘Can we have a conversation like this?’  Your child may have never stopped and considered how it felt when someone was in his space so demonstrating what you mean will allow him to experience it and consider it.
          Using a hula hoop is a great way to illustrate personal space.  Stand inside the hoop so he can see how much space one person needs.  A friend of mine actually wore a hula hoop for two days.  It was a constant reminder of her personal space.  She explained to her son on the first day why she had the hula hoop on, and then it wasn’t necessary to continue to point it out. It served as a constant visual reminder. The only problem was that she forgot she had attached the hula hoop to  herself like a piece of clothing and she answered the door.  She spent ten minutes talking to her new neighbor and never once gave her an explanation as to why she was wearing a hula hoop.  I guess the neighbor got a lesson too!  The family next door is a little different.
          Often kids will walk in between two people who are having a conversation.  They don't see this as an intrusion.  To illustrate this, put a large hoop around two people having a conversation at waist level. Now teach your child to walk around.  It is easy when he can see the hoop.  Have him visualize imaginary hoops after he understands the concept with the actual hoops in place. 
          If your child has trouble using an imaginary hoop, give him something more concrete. Tell him if he can put his arm straight out and touch another person he is probably too close. Remember that you are talking to a person who understands things in a literal way. So be sure to explain to your child that it is fine for him to enter your personal space to give you a hug, kiss, etc.  But that he should step back out of your invisible circle once he has given you your hug.  It's not OK to just hang out inside someone's hoop unless he has permission. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Individuals who are on the autism spectrum require more processing time, or thinking time, to understand what you are asking them to do and to formulate their response. So you may think that your child is not listening or that he is choosing to ignore you. Give him a little more time to respond. If you keep repeating yourself you are just giving the child more information to process, which will take longer, and may overwhelm him. Wait longer than what feels natural for you. If after a minute or so there is still no response, ask him if he understands what you want him to do. If he doesn't understand then tell him again in a different way. This way he can hear your instructions again if he needs to, but it won't feel like you are badgering him.

Think of your child's brain as a computer. We have all experienced a slow computer or program. This can be very frustrating. What happens if you keep clicking the program you are trying to use? It takes longer because your computer has to process each and every click. Your computer can't filter out the unnecessary clicks. Your child's brain is doing the same thing. He can't filter out the extra words, so ignoring some of the requests isn't an option for him. And he can't process the language quickly enough to say, "Stop. I heard you the first time."

So give your child more thinking time and you may find that he is listening. He just needs more time to respond.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


 If you are old enough you may recognize this as a line from an old  Johnny Mercer song. And when you are working with children nothing could be more true. As the song says, Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative and don't mess with Mr. Inbetween.”

 Eliminate as many negative words from your vocabulary as possible. These are words like no, don't, can't, won't and not. You may be thinking, 'How am I supposed to do that when my child is constantly doing something he's NOT supposed to do?' You can do it. You just have to wrap your brain around the concept.

 How do you feel at the end of a full day of, "Stop! No! Don't do that. You can't touch that. etc" We've had our fair share of those days. And by the time we went to bed we felt pretty crappy. You feel bad about yourself. You question your parenting skills. Then the guilt sets in. So what do you do?  Let your kids do anything they want?

 Absolutely not. You get up fresh the next morning and tell yourself that you are only going to tell your child what you want him to do. You are NOT going to tell him what you don't want him to do. So what if he's already doing something he's not supposed to do? Then what? It still works. Instead of telling him not to do what he's currently doing tell him what he CAN do instead. Here are some examples:

NEGATIVE                                                                 POSITIVE
1.Don't sit on the table.                                                 1. You can sit on this chair.
2.Don't write on the wall.                                               2. You can write on paper.
3.Don't run.                                                                     3. Please walk to the car.  

4. No screaming!                                                           4. Please tell me what                                   
                                                                                              you need.
Your child may only hear and process part of your message. So if you say, "Don't write on the wall" and all he hears is, "Write on the wall" guess what he's going to do?  But if you say, "You can write on paper" with a little luck he will choose to write on paper. Just be sure to show him which paper he is allowed to use or he may write on any old paper he finds lying around the house like your check book or the letters that your great grandfather wrote to your great grandmother during WWII.

At the end of the day you and your child will both have a better outlook on life if you have accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative. And please don't mess with Mr. In-Between. He is much too vague for your very literal child to understand. Simple and clear directions work best.

 If your child likes music you may want to listen to the song with him at end of the day. It's guaranteed to put a smile on your face and remind you to keep things in the proper perspective.