By definition, having Asperger’s means having some idiosyncrasies in communication. Kids with AS may view conversation as a way to exchange information rather than to share personal views and experiences. Thus, while sophisticated knowledge on a specific interest may be easily shared, the back-and-forth nature of conversation remains elusive. Kids with Asperger’s may have difficulty recognizing non-language cues like eye contact, posture, facial expression, and tone of voice. While these concepts might be quickly learned, it usually takes much longer to put them into practice.
Increasing Attention and Responsiveness to Communication: responding to one’s own name and to greetings from peers
Enhancing Nonverbal Communication: understanding and expressing feelings through facial expression
Improving Pragmatics: developing practical aspects of communication like sticking to a topic, understanding idioms, and creating scripts for negotiating difficult situations
Increasing Attention and Responsiveness to Communication
Responding to Name Being Called
Many children with AS do not respond to hearing their names. I have had most success addressing this by using “The Response Time Name Game.” I say the child’s name periodically and use a stopwatch to note the time that it takes him to turn his head and orient towards me. I encourage parents to purchase an inexpensive stopwatch to continue the game at home.
Responding to Greetings from Peers
Once the child reliably responds to his name, work may begin on responding to a greeting. Many children with AS are unresponsive when greeted by peers, and other kids may perceive this failure to respond as rejection. The “Name Game” technique can be used to extend your child’s skills so he looks at the speaker and says “hi” in response to a greeting.
Enhancing Nonverbal Communication
A core feature of AS is difficulty recognizing and using non-verbal conversational signals like eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures.
Reading Facial Expression
three childrenThomas the Train site has two games related to identification of emotions. thomasandfriends.com
Play a “Feelings Game,” which displays photographed faces, and “Facial Expressions” which permits manipulation of a virtual face. do2learn.com
The BBC website includes an emotions game which features an animated character named Tamba. Tamba has various experiences and the child selects a face that matches Tamba’s feelings. bbc.co.uk
Try free demos of videos featuring animated vehicle characters with live-action human faces. transporters.tv
The “Let’s Face It Game.” Drawings of people are presented and the player selects the most appropriate emotional label for each scene. cccoe.net
what mood softwareA wealth of free special needs teaching resources awaits at senteacher.org. Content that relates specifically to emotion includes: printables with neutral, happy, sad, angry, disgusted and fearful expressions in male and female versions; facial expression pictures that can be printed out as cards or shown one at a time on screen; male and female faces with various expressions accompanied by a cartoon bubble for writing text. Timed “Face Games” are available for download. In “Find the Odd One Out,” players choose one of three facial expressions that’s not like the other. In “What Mood” (below), players can identify a photo as illustrating a good or bad mood, or label a photo with one of six emotions. senteacher.org
Increasing Facial Expressiveness
Taking digital photos is an excellent way to increase a child’s awareness of his facial expressions. One of my patients, Matthew, had become fairly adept at interpreting the facial expressions of other people, but still struggled with monitoring his own. To explore his ability to use facial expression to communicate his own feelings, we took a series of pictures of what he thought was a range of facial expressions. Later, when we viewed the photos, he found that all of his facial expressions looked pretty much the same, and even he couldn’t tell which was which.
photobooth sallychristn textphotobooth pic girl textisnt that hard-text
Most children love to watch themselves on the computer. I use a program called Photo Booth for taking photos and video (examples above). Photo Booth comes preinstalled on Macs and has two sets of image effects that can be applied when taking a picture. Completely captivating and easy to use.
Name that Feeling! This is a game that we played in our social skills group. We had several paper lunch bags. In each bag was something either “cool” or “icky.” The bags containing “cool” items each contained a small toy. The bags with the “icky” items contained a variety of things such as an empty toilet-paper roll, a worn-out sock, the slivered remains of a bar of soap, or a coupon for dishwashing detergent. The first child would choose a bag and peek inside. The child would indicate to the group, using her facial expression, whether the item was “cool” or “icky.”
Individuals with Asperger’s often have problems with the rules of language that make communication possible, also known as pragmatics. Pragmatics include: 1) Using language to request, greet, or demand; 2) Modifying language according to the needs of a listener or situation (e.g., taking into account the listener’s background knowledge, altering speaking style to fit different situations and different listeners); 3) Following conversational rules such as taking turns, staying on topic, and rephrasing when misunderstood.
Scripts for Difficult Situations
One of my patients with AS has a great vocabulary, but when confronted with difficult situations he may be rendered speechless or otherwise vulnerable. For example, a few years ago, while walking in our suburban downtown area, an attractive young woman with an infant approached him and told him of her need for money to feed her baby. He did not know what to say so he gave her twenty dollars and moved on. He later saw the young woman at Starbucks with friends.
Many writers on AS (e.g., Attwood, 2007) have emphasized the need to teach scripts, especially for difficult or awkward situations. While helping the individual to produce spontaneous language is always preferable, scripts may be a good Plan B. These scripts can be thought of as rescue or repair statements. Some examples are:
Modifying Literal Interpretations
Children with AS often interpret language literally. Idiomatic expressions, such as “she has a frog in her throat” can pose problems. Such a misunderstanding occurred when Christian, a charming and bright six year-old child who had no history of aggression, attempted to choke a classmate, a little girl named Maya. Christian and Maya had always gotten along well, and the attack did not seem to be provoked in any way. When Christian was reprimanded, he was indignant—Sister Margaret, his teacher, had said that Maya had a frog in her throat, and he was only trying to help get it out of there! It never occurred to him that there might not be an actual frog in her throat, or that his actions would be perceived as aggressive.
Idioms are most effectively taught within the context of daily life. It’s best to first select sayings that a child is most likely to encounter or apply. Start with 5–10 idioms and use whenever appropriate. Lists of idioms as well as games and quizzes are available through websites that provide ESL (English as a Second Language) resources.
Staying on Topic
Individuals with AS can have a difficult time sticking with the thread of a conversation, and a treasure ball provides a great way to practice this skill. I’ve often used a “treasure ball” during the last ten minutes of my social language group as a concrete illustration of staying connected by staying on topic.
treasure ballTreasure balls are homemade with crepe paper and small toys or other “treasures”. To make one, tape one end of a roll of crepe paper to a small ball and begin winding the paper around the ball. Every 3–4 feet, tuck in another “treasure.” If you are making it for a group, make sure that there are enough treasures to go around! When you have the number of treasures desired and the ball is somewhat round, secure the lose end of the crepe paper with tape or a cool sticker.
To begin play, select an easy topic, for example, “favorite movies”. The adult goes first to model the correct behavior. The adult “sender” asks a child “receiver” a question about a favorite movie. If the “receiver” responds with an on-topic answer, the adult removes the sticker, and holds the end of the crepe paper with one hand while rolling or tossing the ball to the “receiver.” A treasure falls out which the “receiver” gets to keep.
The child who was the “receiver” now becomes the “sender,” and it is her turn to ask a question. As the treasure ball is tossed to each child, the crepe paper is looped around his shoulders or tummy. At the end, everyone is connected by the crepe paper and everyone has a treasure.
The same procedure can be used to cultivate more advanced social communication behaviors such as giving compliments, or asking for more information. If children in the group get too rambunctious, an observation—“your behaviors tell me that you do not want the treasure ball today”—is often enough to get things back under control.
Practical Parent Resources to Help Children Improve Communication
Net Connections for Communication Disorders and Sciences: An Internet Guide by Judith Maginnis Kuster includes a comprehensive listing of links and web resources for children with communication disorders: communicationdisorders.com
Learning from bees.
Some children with ASD do not recognize a need to improve their social skills. How to explain what’s in it for them. Learn more.
What stimulates sensory systems, muscles and is calming to lie on top of? Stability balls. Learn more.
Losing track of time. Help your child with time management by making it visual. Learn more.
Addressing anxiety, depression, anger and low self-esteem. A game which can be used to help modify emotions. Learn more.
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