Autism Spectrum


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It is very common for people with autism to have less than average ability to hold a back and forth conversation.

Even people who have otherwise reasonable language skills can be poor at “social chit-chat”.

We may know young people with autism who can talk for hours and hours, but that doesn’t mean they are really engaging in a meaningful discussion.

Alternatively, they may provide minimal responses to people in a way that makes it hard for the conversation to flow.

Many of us have done many years of speech therapy with our children when they were younger and then stopped it at some point during the school years. Many of us have been delighted that our children learned to talk fluently at all.

But it is worth looking closely at how our young people are communicating verbally and especially at their skills in conversation since the ability to talk and discuss all sorts of issues are really crucial for forming friendships and for successful workplace relations.

Here follows a list of some of the most common issues that arise with conversation skills with some strategies and activities that can help.

Also listed are some ideas for further reading and resources.


Common Problems

  • Starting conversations
  • Keeping conversations going
  • Ending conversation politely
  • Keeping an appropriate distance when talking
  • Finding mutually interesting topics
  • Staying on topic
  • Talking for too long on a favourite subject
  • Prosody problems i.e. talking too loud or too soft, too fast or too slow, talking in a monotone

The good news is that the “rules of conversation” can be taught – useful strategies include direct instruction, role playing and video modelling.

There are some great resources out there to help you do this. We have summarised some useful tips and strategies below.

Alternatively, a speech pathologist who is experienced in working with young people on the spectrum can work on these issues.


Tips and strategies for developing conversation skills

Parents can help develop the young person’s conversation skills using some simple techniques at home.

People on the spectrum often find social chit-chat boring, difficult, unnecessary or all three.

Before working on conversation skills it may be helpful to provide a rationale as to why the ability to “chat” with someone is important and should be practiced.

For example, in order to establish and maintain friendships and romantic relationships with others a person must be able to engage in some social chit-chat.

This will also be an important skill in many workplaces. So even though chit chat may not come naturally it is an important skill to work on.


Starting conversations

Brainstorm and role play conversation starters for common social situations:

  • when you meet someone new in a social setting
  • when you meet up with someone you know well and who you see on a regular basis
  • when you run into someone that you know but have not seen for some time
  • when you see a colleague at the beginning of the work week etc etc.


Keeping conversations going

An important skill is knowing how to follow up other people’s comments and questions.

Many people with autism provide very brief answers to direct questions and this means that instead of having a conversation with them it can feel like you are interviewing them.

This can be perceived as hard work by others and may result in people being less likely to want to engage with the young person.

Encouraging and practicing elaborating on answers to questions will be a great help to their conversation skills.

You can do this by posing a question that may come up in conversation and seeing whether your son or daughter can provide a response with some elaboration

E.g. instead of answering “Do you have any brothers or sisters” with a “yes” they might be able to add information about how old they are and what they do for a living.

If they are asked where they live, they could give the suburb and could talk about what is good about living there.

They should also be encouraged to finish their answer with a related question back to the person. These skills make conversations interesting and easy to keep going.

In addition to answering direct questions, people with autism need to know how to respond to comments i.e. when someone makes a comment it is usually a good idea to follow up with a question or further comment that shows that you are interested in what they are talking about.

You can develop skills in this area by practising following up on comments.

You can engage in role plays by making comments yourself and encouraging your son or daughter to think of questions they could ask.

Comments could include things like “I’m going on a holiday next week” or “I haven’t been feeling well” or “I’ve had a really busy day” or “ I saw a really good movie on the weekend”.


Reading interest cues from others

Another important skill is knowing how to tell if someone is interested in what you are talking about. We do this by looking at the other person’s body language.

Signs that they may be losing interest include orienting their bodies away from you or looking away or beginning to fidget or yawn.

We may also notice that the other person is not asking us any questions or tries to change the topic. These are all cues that the other person is not interested and they are signs that we need to stop talking or talk about something else.

Your son or daughter may have difficulty picking up on these cues. You can develop this skill by role playing an interest response or a bored response, firstly in an exaggerated way, and then more subtly and ask them to identify how you are feeling.

You could also watch movies or television programs together and freeze frame segments where listeners are showing interest or boredom cues to provide further examples and practice.

Some video games have good conversations. E.G. Mass Effect and Dragon Age have questions that will make characters react in certain ways.


Tips for improving prosody – difficulties with rate, volume and tone

Some young people with autism have voice abnormalities i.e. they may talk too fast or slow, too loud or soft and some speak in a monotone voice.

These difficulties can affect their ability to get their point across.

Unlike some of the other areas of difficulty in autism, prosody impairments have received relatively little attention.

However, if you think voice problems are an issue for your son or daughter, there are some strategies you can try to assist them in this area.

Firstly, are they aware of how their voice sounds to others? You could record some speech using video or audio recording and let them hear how they sound.

Give examples of yourself talking in a loud voice then in a normal voice and then in a whisper. Explain why listeners prefer to hear someone talk in a normal voice.

Have your son or daughter copy you, repeating sentences that you say at the same normal volume or at the same rate as you, depending on the issues. Do this on many occasions and across different settings. Record the attempts and get your son or daughter to evaluate their own performance each time.

Always praise good efforts very strongly.

Next have your child say a variety of different sentences on their own at normal volume, not repeating after you but making up their own sentences. Again, make recordings and get them to evaluate their performance. Praise enthusiastically for effort and success.

You might develop some “secret signals” that can be used in social situations to let them know that their voice has become too loud or they are talking too fast to cue them to focus on their voice in natural settings. 

These techniques for working on rate and volume may be helpful with repeated practice.

Adding intonation and expression for young people whose speaking voice is monotone is much more difficult and there are no proven interventions in this area.

Singing or drama lessons may assist some young people. A recent program using singing techniques has been developed in the United States with some improvements observed in a small group of recipients. You can read more about this program here


Further Resources


The Science of Making Friends by Elizabeth A Laugeson

This book is the handbook of the successful PEERS program from UCLA. It comes with a DVD which shows video models of many social skills and has a section on conversation skills.

Preparing For Life by Dr Jed Baker

This book has lesson plans relating to conversation skills.

You can find an extracts on Google Books here


Jed baker book

Growing Up On The Spectrum by Koegel and LaZebnik

This excellent book has a lot of useful information about supporting and expanding communication and conversation. Read extracts on Google books here.

Growing Up On Spectrum

 Video modelling

The iModeling app makes video modelling using your smart phone very easy. It was developed as a collaboration between – from Autism SAand Flinders University. Read more here.

iModeling App


There are dozens of very short humorous videos on about improving communication.

Howcast Communication


 9th Planet

9th Planet is a video modelling resource that uses a fictional character to illustrate social skills including a series on conversation skills. 

Model Me Kids

DVDs show children and teenagers how to behave and how to communicate effectively in social situations.

Useful web pages

Very basic guide to conversation skills for teenagers with ASD on the Raising Children website.