The Dance of Conversation: Connecting You and Your Child with Special Needs
A good conversation is the glue that holds relationships together. By talking to each other we learn about each other, share our interests, develop new ideas, and empathize.
Many kids with social challenges see conversation as a “rapid dance.” It requires you to display joint attention, take multiple perspectives, read subtle non-verbal cues, demonstrate flexible thinking, listen actively, maintain joint attention shifts, and respond using verbal skills which include word selection, grammar, idioms, slang and vocal inflection.
This is not an easy thing to do for a child with difficulties taking in the big picture, or who finds it hard to look at a communicative partner. If there are challenges in processing and word retrieval, conversation is a huge concern.
And there are so many kinds of conversations! Each with their own kinds of rules and structure. Think about small talk, persuading someone, showing empathy, demonstrating, supporting someone, apologizing, manipulating someone, asking for help, or building a new friendship. There is so much problem solving, language processing, and expressive language needed to respond. Some of our kids wonder if the dance is really worth it.
Learn to Dance!
Talking with others is worth the effort. You just need to know the steps of a conversation. Conversations can be short or longer, depending on the relationship you have with a partner. The mailman probably will just exchange greetings: Hi, Paulie! Hi, Mr. Marks! Have a great day, Paulie! You, too, Mr. Marks! Someone close to the child, like Grandma, wants to connect at a deeper level. You can practice different scenarios with these steps. Make the “dance” as long or short as your child can do.
How to do the Conversation Dance
1. Greet someone
Use their name if you remember.
Make sure you are looking at the person and turn your body toward the person. Wait for them to be ready for you. You can wave to get their attention if you are a distance away.
Say: Hello, Max. Hi, Sara. How are you, Mrs. Gold. Good morning, Grandpa. Hey, Jack!
2. Comment or ask a Question
Ask a question. Say something that gets the person’s interest and allows them a turn to talk.
Say: What’s up? What are you doing? How have you been? Cool toy. Can I see it? How does it work?
Questions provide the first method of connecting with someone after that first hello. That is why we ask, What do you think of that? What have you been up to? How do you like this heat/cold? Why is this place so crowded? This is our way of saying, I want to talk to you. Questions help us understand how others think.
3. Do the Back-and-Forth Dance
Take turns talking. Comment on what your partner says and then STOP so the other person has a chance to talk. Be sure to take turns talking. Comments can describe your thoughts and ideas about a topic. You share your ideas. The other person shares their ideas. Stay on the same topic. After a while you might want to change the topic, so ask if you can.
With children, taking turns is especially important, which is difficult if the topic is one of importance or great interest to them. We use TMI to remind them that they are using Too Much Information and they are hogging the conversation with too much detail in their special interest. We use the phrase, Get Back On Track, if someone is going on a tangential subject without agreement in the conversation. Although natural conversations aren’t mathematically equal, when we practice conversation, we remind one another to balance the number of questions and comments.
Say: Along the same idea, That makes me think of…, Have you heard about…, Do you know much about …?
4. Bow Out
Get ready to end the dance. Listen or tell your listener that you are getting ready to leave.
Say: Well, I gotta go… I should go now, talk to you later. Gotta run, see you soon.
Now you are done and will leave the dance. Always let your partner know you are done. Listen so you know when they are done talking, too.
Say: See you, Bye! Take care. Talk to you next time. I’m outta here! Catch you later. Bye-bye.
Conversation is difficult for many people, not just people with special needs. Many people find it hard to make small talk, to talk in front of a crowd, or to join a group where they are a newcomer. If you are at a party, family gathering, or at a social event, and you notice someone watching the party, but not participating, invite them to the “dance of conversation” and be truly inclusive.