Conversations are a part of social life at home, in school and at work. However, conversation skills may not develop naturally for everybody, such as for children with social communication difficulties. SPD’s speech therapist, Tan Jia Hui shares some strategies to improve your chances of having successful conversations with your child
During social interactions, children with social communication difficulties may face challenges in areas such as greetings, adjusting their language for different situations and interpreting people’s emotions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). For school-aged children, it is also necessary for them to understand implied meaning such as jokes, humour and sarcasm.
If you are a parent of a child who has social communication difficulties, you can make conversations easier by trying out the following strategies. Though the examples below apply more to school-aged children, the strategies may still be applicable to younger children depending on their level of conversation skills.
1) Find the right moments
Timing is important. Sometimes, your child may be engrossed in an activity or he/she may have had a busy day and need some down time. During these times, your child may not be in the best state to have a dialogue with you.
Instead, look for moments when your child is calm and away from distractions, such as after a bath or before bedtime. Moments when your child is around family members, such as during mealtimes, are great opportunities to talk about what had happened during the day.
2) Talk about your child’s interests
Everyone has his/her own interests. Your child is no different. People are more likely to want to talk about something they like, since they know the subject well and want to know more about it.
Find out what your child likes and read up about it. This way, you will be able to comment and come up with questions. You can do so by observing the books, TV programmes or games that he/she seems to enjoy.
For example, if you often see your child reading Pokemon books, you can be fairly sure that he/she likes them. You can start by commenting and asking a question. For example, you may say: “That looks like an interesting monster. What power does it have?”
Be genuinely curious and listen when your child tells you about it. Showing interest in other’s likes is a great way to open the door to meaningful conversations.
3) Interpret your child’s messages.
Some children with social communication difficulties may not be able to express themselves clearly. This may be due to their language limitations, or difficulty in taking on the perspective of their listeners.
To interpret their messages, pay attention to what they say, and also their non-verbal language such as tone, and facial expression. For example, if the child is looking out of the window while talking to you, it may mean that he/she wants to leave the conversation.
In addition, we can pay attention to the environment for clues as well. For example, if your child is talking about McDonald’s, and it is close to lunch time, he/she is possibly hungry.
By interpreting their message, it helps us to formulate an answer that is relevant to their content. This helps children feel heard, which encourages them to talk to us in future.
4) Add a new idea to the conversation.
Some children may have strong preferences about certain topics. For example, 6-year-old John likes to talk about days and dates. He is happy to share about the birth date of his family members, or the dates when certain events had happened. However, there may not always be that much to talk about on one single topic.
If we want to continue the conversation, we may have to steer it towards another topic. However, some children may be resistant if we change the topic suddenly. The key is thus to join in the conversation first, before adding in a new idea.
For example, if John is talking about his cousin’s birthday on 9 August, you can also add in: “That’s so cool. 9 August is also National Day. Do you look forward to the national day parade?” This way, you can gently steer the conversation in a different direction.
Introducing new ideas not only keeps the dialogue going, but also introduces your child to new topics. This will then broaden the number of things that he/she can talk about in future.
5) Use more open-ended questions
Some questions invite people to talk more than others. For example, “yes/no” and “What is it?” questions are typically limiting. There is only very little that people can say in response. For example, if you ask: “Are you having exams?”, your child may give a grunt of acknowledgment. This makes it hard for you to maintain the conversation.
On the other hand, open-ended questions give people more room to express themselves. “Why” and “How” questions require elaboration, which can allow a child to open up more. For example, when you ask your child “How did you find the movie?”, he may tell you what he likes and dislikes about the show. When they say more, you also obtain more information. This will then allow you to come up with more questions.
Therefore, it is helpful to ask the right questions when trying to involve your child in a conversation.
6) Use simple and direct language.
Children with social communication difficulties may take language literally. If you say “she is crying buckets”, you may be met with a confused stare. Your child may interpret it as buckets coming out of a girl’s eyes, rather than as a girl crying uncontrollably,
Confusion is a conversation killer. To avoid such mix-ups, refrain from using metaphors (e.g. on cloud nine, funny bone and so on) unless you are sure that your child understands them. Instead, stick to simple and direct language so that your child can follow what you are saying. For example, instead of saying “I was over the moon when I got the prize”, try saying “I was really happy when I got the prize.” This makes it easier for your child to follow along with the conversation, leading to more successful conversations.
7) Give your child time to respond
Some children may need more time to process what they hear or to craft their answers. There are also children who may need more time to do both.
If we jump in before they can respond, we rob them of the chance to participate. As a result, it may lead to frustration or worse, them leaving the conversation entirely. To avoid this, we need to provide ample time for them to answer.
Count silently from one to five, while waiting expectantly. This means leaning in with a look that shows you are waiting for them to participate. Though it may seem like a long time, know that the wait is worth it.
In summary, children with social communication difficulties can participate in conversations if we give them a chance to do so. The next time you try to talk to your child, do keep the above strategies in mind, and enjoy the conversation!
Sussman, F. (2002). Talkability: People Skills for Verbal Children on the Autism Spectrum; A Guide for Parent. Toronto, ON: The Hanen Centre.
MacDonald. J.D. (2007). Play To Talk: A Practical Guide to Help Your Late-Talking Child Join the Conversation. Madison, WI: Kiddo Publishing
Gabor, D. (1983). How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author