Teens and young adults with autism or Asperger’s may have basic communication skills but can miss the nuances that help them develop friendships and careers. They may talk too much, stand too close, avoid eye contact, or appear self-centered. But they can improve. Here’s how to help teens or adults in your family or classroom:
1. Create a “talking stone” as a teaching tool. Paint a flat rock with the phrase “your turn” on one side and “ask a question” on the other. Use the stone to prompt your teen to ask questions and keep the conversation going, rather than dominating with a monologue.
2. Role play conversations ahead of time. Let’s say the teen will be selling cookies at an autism awareness event. What questions will people ask, and how will the teen or adult respond? What if a stranger expresses surprise that the teen is autistic?
Role playing can be especially powerful if the conversation is videotaped and reviewed afterwards. Begin by doing a trial run of the conversation, then do it again and tape it. Point out great interactions. Look for appropriate gestures, good eye contact, and ability to listen without interrupting. Encourage speech that’s not too fast in a lively tone with highs and lows instead of monotone. Help the teen or adult show his ideas, insight, and creativity.
3. The old adage “watch one, do one and teach one” works for individuals on the autism spectrum. They are often able to provide instructions and help others with conversational turn-taking skills when they are put in charge and given a set of rules about what to teach about good communcation. Look for opportunities for your teen to be the teacher, perhaps instructing younger students on the autism spectrum.
4. Interviews for college or jobs are milestone events that can require a lot of preparation. This guidance is critical because people with Asperger’s or autism may have intense interests, but presenting themselves well to colleges or employers isn’t necessarily one of them. They may tell you they understand they need to do it, but actually doing it is another matter. That's true of all teens, of course, but it’s even more pronounced with those on the autism spectrum. The “teenage mode” for this group can last until the mid-20s or longer.
Make the teen or young adult the “project manager” for the interview with your guidance. Say that you’ll make a timeline together of the steps that need to get done, then meet regularly to make sure all is on track. Big steps might include writing a resume and creating a portfolio of past work. Break these down into manageable tasks. Help your teen or young adult view this process as a project that requires dedicated time. You and others will work together to give the teen encouragement and feedback.
We’re much more aware now than a generation ago how successful people with autism and Asperger’s can be. Developing communication skills is a means to reaching those goals of friendships, college or career.