The Art of Talk-Sharing Should you stop clients who only want to discuss their interests or let them talk? Experts on social communication and pragmatics weigh in. Features
Features  |   December 01, 2016
The Art of Talk-Sharing
Author Notes
  • Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.
    Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Normal Language Processing / Language Disorders / Social Communication & Pragmatics Disorders / Features
Features   |   December 01, 2016
The Art of Talk-Sharing
The ASHA Leader, December 2016, Vol. 21, 44-50. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.21122016.44
The ASHA Leader, December 2016, Vol. 21, 44-50. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.21122016.44
The mother of an 11-year-old boy on the autism spectrum was exasperated. Her son—who has high-functioning autism—expounded at length about the videogame Minecraft. And the monologue-ing could continue for five, 10 or 15 minutes, no matter the listener’s level of interest.
Worried that her son’s singular focus would alienate potential conversation partners and friends, the mother turned to an online autism forum for advice. She shared that she typically cut short her son’s monologues after a minute or two, in hopes that he’d learn conversational self-control. But others in the forum suggested that this was insensitive and she should let him talk longer and ask follow-up questions.
So which is the better way to teach such a child about the art of talk-sharing? Actually, neither is ideal, say speech-language pathologists specializing in social communication and pragmatics. Stopping the child from talking could discourage him from conversing entirely, and only inquiring about his special interest could fuel his difficulty with switching topics or noticing another person’s interest level.
“I wouldn’t take the approach of shutting the child down and saying, ‘Don’t go on and on about something that only interests you’—that will only turn off the child to conversation,” says Alexandra Lobo, an SLP and co-founder of Dramatic Pragmatics in Rye Brook, New York. “But I also wouldn’t let the child continue to go on tangents about their own interest. The world will be unkind about that. So we need to use the home as a safe space to teach conversational partnering.”
Gently redirecting the conversation is one effective strategy, says Lobo, and SLPs and parents can teach children to use a host of talk-sharing tools, such as drawing on partners’ interests, asking questions, listening actively, “social faking” and self-monitoring. But to effectively use such tools, the child must first be “able” to see the perspective of somebody else, emphasizes SLP and Social Thinking developer Michelle Garcia Winner.
Perspective primer
Of course, for children with more severe autism, seeing others’ perspectives is out of reach, notes Garcia Winner. However, even children on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum struggle with perspective-taking, she says (see the Leader article “Beyond Me”).
“The kid automatically thinks that what’s interesting to him is interesting to others, so he just talks about his interest,” Garcia Winner says. “And when we’re being social and polite, we don’t tell people we’re not interested and we’re uncomfortable—we go along with it. So for the kid, the feedback is pretty positive, so he keeps doing it.”
Also, she says, social thinking is cognitively taxing for these children; it takes extra work for them to decode others’ comments and encode a response. To help them break the one-sided cycle, they first need specific instruction in perspective-taking, says Garcia Winner. “A child has trouble mastering turn-taking and other conversational skills if they’re only focused on their own thoughts and are unable to consider what someone else is thinking and feeling. That’s why it’s important to start with developing perspective-taking skills.”
Autism expert Patty Prelock knows about the importance of helping children understand perspective-taking, also known as Theory of Mind. She agrees with the need to first help them think outside their own brain. “I tell kids, ‘I can see you like to talk about X topic. How do you think your friend feels when that’s all you talk about?’” says Prelock, a past ASHA president who is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Vermont. “I say, ‘If all your friend talked about was his own interest, wouldn’t you get bored or frustrated?’”
Prelock recounts how her 10-year-old client “Joe” talked nonstop about aquatic mammals and high-end restaurants. Two of Joe’s peers had recently walked off as he recounted all he knew about dolphins and manatees. So Prelock asked if he’d given them a chance to comment or ask questions. “No,” came the surprised reply.
Prelock explained that if he wanted his peers to listen to him and be his friend, he needed to let them talk, too. So, knowing that kids on the spectrum tend to be visual learners, Prelock used a visual social story (see the Leader article “What’s the Story?”). She had Joe draw a “before” comic strip showing the conversation that actually occurred and an “after” comic strip showing Joe giving his peers chances to talk.
Connect and redirect
Another perspective-taking aid is connecting with what clients say but redirecting the conversation, says Lobo. “The mother might say to the Minecraft-focused child, ‘I know you had fun playing Minecraft today, and hey, want to know what I did today? I did something really cool!’” Using this “conversational dangler” approach helps children learn to socially wonder about a variety of topics, Lobo says.
She recently used the approach with her 9-year-old client “Bob,” who talked nonstop about air-conditioning vents.
After Bob inspected all the vents in her office and began describing how they work, Lobo told him, “I can see you really like air-conditioning vents. I like that they keep us cool in summer. But what I really like about summer is going to the beach. Do you like the beach in the summer?”
Lobo then explained to Bob that each conversation partner’s job is to show interest in the other and ensure that the other isn’t bored or lost. And because air-conditioning vents aren’t of interest to Lobo, she shifted the topic elsewhere in hopes of finding an area of mutual interest.
But—and this is key—she first connected with Bob by acknowledging his love of air-conditioning vents. She knew that dismissing this great interest of his would be a conversation killer.

“The mother might say to the Minecraft-focused child, ‘I know you had fun playing Minecraft this morning, and hey, want to know what I did this morning? I did something really cool!’”

Talk-share tools
After establishing a foundation of perspective-taking with children, SLPs and parents can move on to building conversational skills. For Jill Kuzma, an SLP with the Minneapolis schools, this starts with explaining basic conversational structure. She diagrams the components of topic, opener, comment, question, turn-taking and farewell (see her handout on this structure on her “Social and Emotional Skills” website).
Once children grasp these basics, they can move on to learning key tools for conversing, which include (but aren’t limited to):
Drawing on partners’ interests. Garcia Winner has children start by mapping their own and another’s interests—drawn as “thought bubbles”—onto separate brains. She explains, “The child can see that maybe their bubble for architecture is huge, while mine for architecture is tiny.”
Similarly, Lobo uses a “topic board” to help children brainstorm what others may want to discuss. Conversational partners often include brothers, sisters, playdates or parents. “A lot of kids really don’t know what Mom is truly interested in,” laughs Lobo. “They think it’s washing clothes or getting breakfast.” But thinking through another person’s true interests sets them up for a more fruitful conversation.
Kuzma is a fan of social worker Joel Shaul’s Conversation Train strategies, in particular his “Green Zone” approach. Using it, two children seek common ground (green) between one person’s interests (blue) and another’s (yellow).
Asking social-wondering questions. Another conversational behavior that doesn’t come naturally to children on the spectrum is asking others questions about themselves—a concept covered in Garcia Winner’s 2005 “Think Social Curriculum” and adapted by Lobo in her practice. “I have kids say, ‘I’m not a stalker. Why would I ask someone where they live?’” says Lobo. “I have to explain how there’s a big difference between asking someone their specific address versus where they live generally.”
Another challenge for some kids is understanding why they’d ask a question they think they already know the answer to, says Prelock. They don’t realize you might offer a different perspective, she says, or illustrate an aspect they hadn’t before considered.
Lobo explains to clients with these challenges that asking people “social-wondering” questions helps demonstrate that “I care about you, I like you and I want to get to know you.” She helps kids generate acceptable social-wondering questions. For instance, she and her client Bob worked up a list of non-air-conditioning-vent-related questions he could ask peers in his taekwondo class—questions such as, “Do you also play tennis,” “How is your baby brother/sister” and “What school do you go to?”

“I have kids say, ‘I’m not a stalker. Why would I ask someone where they live?’ I have to explain how there’s a big difference between asking someone their specific address versus where they live generally.”

Social faking. This one is especially tough for children on the spectrum: Sometimes we might say things we really don’t mean, laugh at jokes we don’t find funny, or ask about topics we don’t find interesting—all in the name of social diplomacy. A child with social difficulties may struggle to understand, for example, why a person says they like a gift that they really dislike. “So I teach that there are ‘white lies’ that keep others from feeling hurt versus real lies that hurt others,” says Lobo.
The child may also think socially skilled people deeply care when they ask how someone else’s day is going. “I explain that it’s not so much about them really wanting to know,” says Lobo. “It’s about relationship-building.”
This is what Garcia Winner calls “the social fake”—disingenuous behavior that promotes social bonding. To help children understand why, for example, we might feign interest in a friend’s comments, she has them consider how they feel when others don’t pay attention to them.
Self-monitoring. Integral to social-faking is self-monitoring during a conversation—the child must maintain attention, face their partner and use eye contact to show interest, notes Kuzma. If they gaze out the window, humming, their partner will feel ignored.
In addition, the child needs to self-monitor how much they’re talking as compared with their partner. To help clients grasp this concept, Kuzma (with parents’ permission) videotapes them talking to each other, then delineates their contributions with talking bubbles. “I like to say, ‘Make a talking bubble,’ instead of ‘Take a turn,’ because it’s more concrete for the child,” Kuzma explains.
Together, she and the clients count the talking bubbles to determine if one talker monopolized the discussion. They also note when talking bubbles bumped into each other—meaning one person interrupted instead of waiting their turn to speak.

“[Listening isn’t just passive.] It’s letting your partner know that you’re interested and engaged, so it’s saying, ‘Wow!’ and matching your facial expressions to what they’re saying.”

Listening actively. Another important conversational concept, says Lobo, is the idea that listening isn’t just quiet and passive—it’s an ongoing dance. “It’s letting your partner know that you’re interested and engaged, so it’s saying, ‘Wow!’ and matching your facial expressions to what they’re saying,” Lobo explains.
Follow-up comments and questions specific to your partner’s words are key, she notes. “But you need to match the mood of your comment or question to the mood of your partner’s comment. I tell kids, if somebody says, ‘I had to take my dog to the vet,’ you wouldn’t want to respond, ‘Oh, cool!’ You’d want to respond, ‘Uh-oh. Is your dog OK?’”
Returning to the example of Prelock’s client Joe—the child focused on high-end restaurants—Prelock had graduate students make videos in which they modeled an interactive discussion about their favorite restaurants. She and Joe watched the videos and discussed how the actors used turn-taking, questions, and reading each other’s body language to have a mutually enjoyable conversation.
Then Prelock put Joe to the test. She got him talking about his recent trip to a local smokehouse. Joe launched into an enthusiastic description of the restaurant’s unsurpassed local ham and cornbread. Then he paused. And asked Prelock, “Have you ever been to a smokehouse?”
Prelock said she hadn’t and pointed out that she’s lactose intolerant, to which Joe replied that the restaurant might offer dairy-free items. “So I said to him, ‘Maybe I should go,’” says Prelock, “and he suggested to me, ‘Maybe we could go together.’”
Talk-sharing, it seemed, had turned into food-sharing.
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December 2016
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