After a day of school, a birthday party, a recently watched movie, or a return from summer vacation, kids with autism do not tend to initiate or share their experiences. This usually leads most adults to start a line of interrogation, such as: “How was school today?”; “What was the movie about?”; “What did you do during summer vacation?”. Unfortunately, not only does this cause dependency on others to initiate for the child, but the child tends to give only bits of information at a time, thereby creating disjointed communication.
This lack of initiation or of sharing is the result of systemic issues at the heart of autism. The person with autism tends to be inside himself, so he often will have difficulty connecting emotionally with others while experiencing an event or activity. Furthermore, if he has already experienced the event himself, he does not understand the purpose of sharing his memories purely for socialization. Even when he wishes to share his experience with someone, he can be confused as to with whom his story will be best received.
You can help your child make these connections both during and after her experience by pointing out distinctions and later choosing a suitable conversational partner.
DURING THE EXPERIENCE: Point out the interesting, odd, exciting objects, events, or activities.
“Wow! Look at that huge log flume! It goes around and around and up and down!”
“Are your feet burning on this hot sand?”
“Oh my goodness! That fish looked like it was flying out of the water! The fish back home in our lakes don’t do that!”
“Isn’t it weird that we are sleeping outside in a tent on the ground instead of inside our house on a bed?!”
AFTER THE EXPERIENCE: Memory provides the opportunity to engage within ourselves as well as with others while celebrating one’s life and enhancing pride and self-esteem. Because we can never go through an experience exactly the same way again, we enjoy remembering. As opposed to a line of questioning or interrogation, your casual initiation of your child’s experience can spark her to want to discuss it further, bring up another related event, and/or initiate conversation about her memory of her own experience with others.
“Even though you went skiing a few days ago, it’s fun to talk about what happened with other people, like when you went down that hill super-fast, because you get to think about it again and again.”
“I like to remember when you were going down the log flume. You were so scared, but afterwards you weren’t scared anymore! Next time if you go down the log flume again, you won’t be scared.”
“Remember the tire swing that was hanging from the huge tree by the lake at Aunt Susan’s house? I am sure you wish that we had one, huh?”
“I know that Grandma wishes that she could have gone to Disney with us. So, if you share your experiences by telling her what you did, Grandma will feel like she went to Disney also.”
To further help your child, you can make abstract experiences like summer vacation more concrete and tangible with my FREE “CONVERSATION GIFT” TEMPLATE. Visual and tactile objects help people with autism to understand and remember. Souvenirs (either purchased or found in nature), photographs, or drawings are artifacts of what the child did and saw. They allow the child to physically refer to, bring, show, and share his memories. Memories are the greatest gifts to both give and receive, and people with autism will have an easier time to physically give this “gift” to others.
HOW TO USE THE ‘CONVERSATION GIFT’ TEMPLATE:
-Print the “Conversation Gift” and help your child fill in the blanks. You can say something general to introduce and stimulate conversation like, “I had such a nice time at the lake.”
-Either have your child choose a preferred person, or you choose someone who is open and approachable for your child to initiate a conversation. For example, “When you see Uncle Bob, you can tell him about your trip to the lake.”
-Help your child think about that person’s interests, background, occupation, etc. to try to tie in your child’s experiences. You can say, “Uncle Bob will want to hear about your trip to the lake because he likes the outdoors and animals.” Another option is to be more general and fill in “…because I know that he/she wants to hear all about my vacation.”
-Look at the artifacts your child collected. For example, perhaps you photographed a mother turtle with her baby turtles sitting on a log. It may be that your child is able to make an initiating statement by recalling your statements and explanations at the time in which he experienced the turtles. If not, you can stimulate your child’s initiation by saying something like, “This was so interesting because this is the first time you and I have ever seen a mother turtle with her baby turtles. When you see Uncle Bob you can tell him about this. Write down something over here that you would like to say to Uncle Bob about the turtles.”
-To help further the intended conversation, help your child think of a question to ask the conversational partner. See below for a few examples. When your child encounters this conversational partner, he can then present this “Conversation Gift” and refer back to the ‘Conversation Starter’ he wrote in order to begin the conversation. Afterward, the conversational partner will keep this “Conversational Gift” along with the artifact. Seeing this “Conversation Gift” displayed within the conversational partner’s home may spark your child to initiate conversation again.
MY CONVERSATION GIFT FOR: Uncle Bob BECAUSE I KNOW THAT he likes the outdoors and animals.
TITLE: MY SUMMER VACATION AT the lake
ARTIFACT: Photograph of turtles your child saw at the lake
CONVERSATION STARTER: “I saw a mother turtle with her baby turtles sitting on this log. Uncle Bob, have you ever seen a mother turtle with her baby turtles before?”
MY CONVERSATION GIFT FOR: My next-door-neighbor, Sarah, BECAUSE I KNOW THAT she lives in New Jersey just like I do.
TITLE: MY SUMMER VACATION AT Aruba
ARTIFACT: Granules of Aruba’s sand in a plastic bag alongside a drawing of the white sand in New Jersey
CONVERSATION STARTER: “The beach in Aruba has pink sand, but New Jersey has white sand. Sarah, did you know that beaches have different color sand?”
For a child with limited language…
MY CONVERSATION GIFT FOR: Grandpa BECAUSE I KNOW THAT Grandpa wants to hear all about my vacation
TITLE: MY SUMMER VACATION AT Disney
ARTIFACT: Mickey Mouse necklace
CONVERSATION STARTER: “I saw Mickey Mouse in Disney. Grandpa, do you like Mickey?”
Over time, your child will learn the value of sharing memories with others through initiating conversation as he/she creates a bridge to the past and a connection to the present.