This post reflects on SLPs teaching “conversation skills” therapy for autistic students- is it really beneficial? – and highlights the impact of emphasizing questions within conversation. Explores different perspectives when it comes to conversation and how these different styles can clash in social interactions.

SLP Conversation Skills Therapy for Autistic Students

Have you ever asked a student a yes-or-no question when you’re not looking for a yes-or-no answer? And then been surprised by the yes-or-no answer you receive?

Do you have a favorite book? Yes. Okay…but what is it? The Hunger Games.

Do you know the weather outside? Yes. Okay…so what’s it like? It’s raining.

There’s plenty you can point out is “wrong” with these conversations and the one depicted in the comic. The responder is interpreting the questions too literally. And they’re not asking reciprocal questions, even that simple “And you?” is lacking. An autistic person isn’t directly inquiring to the listener? They’re not demonstrating they’re interested in the other person!

So therefore, the conversations don’t flow. Therefore, we jump to thinking, We must teach these students to ask about the other person too. It’s an easy conclusion to come to – I can totally see the logic – but I want to offer a different perspective.

What if focusing on asking questions doesn’t build up conversation skills for autistic students? What if questions don’t help our autistic students make connections with others? What if instead questions hinder their ability to connect?

Consider this, a lack of asking questions in conversation can be a difference in style, not a deficit.

A Neurodivergent Conversation Style

Different people’s brains operate a little differently, and having different conversation styles can result. If a student doesn’t naturally make connections through asking and answering questions, we’re not really helping them by teaching asking questions as the “right” way. We’re adding a barrier to conversation, that the student has to change their natural communication style to access.

For traditional conversational etiquette, it is considered respectful to ask questions so the other person can share about themself. This respect and opportunity to share can help with making a connection with someone. As the purpose of social conversation is generally to make social connections.

Now imagine some people who do not follow traditional conversational etiquette. Instead of assuming they lack etiquette, consider that they may follow a different etiquette entirely.

Traditionally, we ask questions to invite the other person to talk about themself. However, we all know that people want to talk about themselves – their thoughts, views, experiences, beliefs. This is no surprise. Needing to ask questions to get the other person to share creates extra steps when it would be far simpler to simply expect the other person to share what’s on their mind when they want to share without prompting.

Initiating questions asks us to predict what the other person might want to talk about. Do you want to talk about some news or your weekend or your pets or some hobby you might have or god forbid, sports – which sports are even playing right now??

Responding to questions can also be tricky. Questions can be too specific. Limiting conversation to answering the specific question, especially when autistic brains interpret literally. Questions can also be too broad. An autistic brain that thinks in specifics may struggle with how to answer a broad question without knowing what detail to focus on. That could be another post entirely.

As a result, a neurodivergent conversational etiquette may consider it respectful to have a blanket invitation that the conversation partner can just share their thoughts, no waiting for questions needed.

When a brain is attuned to thinking in details rather than big picture, that brain identifies patterns and makes connections between things that on the surface may appear nothing alike. An autistic brain might note a small detail in conversation that they connect to a different topic entirely. But this detail connecting requires space to allow the spontaneous thinking and processing as it’s not obvious or predictable. Asking questions would interrupt the flow of this style of conversation.

When we think of conversation as styles, instead of skills, we allow for considering that both methods of conversing are valid. And the communication problem is far better described as mismatched conversation styles.

When Conversation Styles Clash

In the comic, the autistic girl wants to engage in conversation with the boy. She’s not deliberately crumbling the conversation, she’s answering the neurotypical boy’s questions. However, when the boy asks whether she’d seen any movies lately, she only thinks to answer about movies. She doesn’t think to answer with the alternate media or entertainment she actually consumes, because he didn’t ask that, he asked about movies.

If the boy had simply finished his thoughts on the movie he’d seen and said nothing more instead of asking the question, how might the conversation have gone differently? She could have shared the adjacent entertainment she enjoyed that the movie talk made her think of. Neither character is wrong, they are simply different.

Training the autistic person to ask those reciprocal questions isn’t going to help them make true connections. The problem is that asking questions to some autistic brains impedes conversation, not enhances it, yet we continue to dominate social conversations with questions.

Teach Conversation Styles – Not Skills

Teaching expected conversation skills isn’t helping the autistic person, but rather helps the neurotypical people who have to interact with a different kind of brain. I encourage you to reconsider focusing on how a conversation should look, and instead consider how we can make social connections while still being our authentic selves.

Some thoughts on what could help build conversation skills for autistic students with this conversation style?

  • Engaging in conversations with other neurodivergent people with a similar conversation style or a shared interest
  • Understanding brain differences and learning compensatory strategies or ways to accommodate their brain in a conversation
  • Practicing how to educate about different conversation styles
  • Reinforcing that they are not “bad” at conversation, that they have a different style of communicating because of having a different brain
  • Talking about or reflecting on miscommunications and conflicts
  • Addressing social anxiety that can impact conversation and social connection
  • Practicing how to answer specific questions (like for a job interview) or practicing specific scenarios that are predictable and can be scripted (like ordering at a restaurant) (although these are not as applicable to peer social interactions)

When we think about conversation as a skill to be mastered, differences in communication are identified as deficits. Understanding social differences helps everyone communicate better. And ultimately, the goal of social conversations should not be performance, but connection.

Let me know if you found value from sharing this perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *