Conversation Skills for Students with Autism

  • Conversation Skills for Students with Autism

Children with autism and Asperger Syndrome will need to practice recognizing verbal social cues and improving conversation skills in the classroom

Although children with high functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome may have an above average grasp of the technical form of language, they will most certainly struggle with the nuances of natural conversation. There are strategies within the classroom setting that can encourage and improve a child’s ability to adeptly participate in conversation and form friendships.

Conversation Difficulties for Kids with Autism

It is hard for an autistic child to recognize facial expressions of others and consequently, he may not know when another participant in a discussion is bored, puzzled, or requires empathetic responses. Another difficulty for children with AS or autism is in recognizing sarcasm or understanding catch phrases (“raining cats and dogs”, “pulling my leg”, etc.), tending to interpret these literally instead.

Additionally, the student with autism could overwhelm the dialogue when the subject of discussion is important to him, whereas he will not offer any words or questions to keep a conversation going if it is not about something that he knows or is interested in. It may also be difficult for him to show compassion or any physical or verbal signs that he is listening or in sync with what is being said.

Finally, a child with autism may have difficulty holding back on comments that could hurt someone’s feelings, even if they are true.

Improving Autistic Conversation Skills

In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome [1], author Tony Attwood suggests that improvements in the following areas should be the goal for any school program that attempts to improve conversation skills for students with Asperger Syndrome:

  • Listening skills
  • Giving and receiving compliments and criticism
  • Tips on how/when to interrupt
  • Conversational transitions to change of subject
  • Usage of empathetic comments
  • Conversation openers and closers
  • Conversational turn taking

Classroom Activities to Improve Natural Conversation

Social skills picture stories. Reading picture stories or comic strip cartoons that contain social conversations between characters will be a good first step to understanding appropriate social interaction. These stories will help children with autism visualize and organize conversations in a logical and understandable way. [2]

Working in pairs to practice conversation. Each child is given a list of conversation starters (two or three), a topic of discussion, and is tasked with finding something in common while talking about the subject given.

Creating a story with dialogue. Coming up with a story that includes two or more characters that need to talk will help a child with autism think about how to set up an appropriate interaction. A difficult social situation can be assigned as the story theme ahead of time, and the characters in the story can be required to solve their problem through conversation.

Classroom plays. With classroom plays, children will be given a script that can be practiced in advance. A play can be based on a real life scenario of children on the playground, bullying, or a subject in which the actors need to show compassion and concern. The teacher can coach the student with autism with the appropriate facial expressions and voice inflection during the rehearsals and this will give the child guidance and practice.

Activities that improve skills in the subtle art of conversation will greatly benefit children with autism and Asperger Syndrome, and could lead to the formation of friendships that otherwise may not have occurred. The coaching, practice, and guidance that teachers can offer in this setting will be the key to improving verbal abilities of children with high functioning autism and AS who are becoming increasingly integrated with their peers into the regular classroom.


Attwood, Tony, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.

Baker, Jed, Ph.D., The Social Skills Picture Book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism. TX: Future Horizons, Inc.

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