A powerful conversation strategy for individuals with ASD.

I googled Communication and Autism…this is what the highlight said
People with autism have challenges with communication and social skills. They often find it hard to have conversations and may not pick up on social cues. Some people with autism may not talk at all, and others may talk very well. But all will have some challenges making friends and communicating socially.

With my own experience as an Autism Parent, and the 15 years involved in RDI, I believe we still need to catch up to what the research says regarding how we can help individuals with Autism communicate.  Not one of us learned how to communicate through a set of social stories or teachings on what to say over every single possible situation that could occur…as if that would even be possible. We cannot control what other people say to us, life is not a script that everyone follows.  While perhaps well meaning, in Autism Circles today, this method of “if this person says this, you can say that” is still widely accepted.  I get it, if we can just teach language maybe the “communication” piece will come.  I am here to say, No.  Communication can expand through rote skills being taught,  but not in an authentic way.  Not only that but it can promote feelings of incompetence, which leads to anxiety and ultimately the individual strays away from situations where they think a conversation will be needed.

So how can we change this narrative?

Through my past work in RDI, up until now RDI has continued to raise the bar and follow the research on best practices in Psychology.  These practices don’t necessarily align with what the Autism Community says as I have found for Autism, its hard to get out of the mindset of teaching everything discreetly with a focus on behaviors.  When you realize that the individual standing in front of you, can make their own discoveries and can learn intrinsic motivation through a process of their own mental challenge, this empowers them to make changes for themselves that they understand.  Through the process of experimenting and engaging in small challenges, they learn about their own agency, how to reflect and how to draw from their past experiences for the future.
However,  for this point,  I want to focus solely on conversation.  Feel free to read my other blog posts on a variety of other topics and more to come!

Let me start by stating the obvious question.  Why do people with Autism struggle with conversation?  Maybe a few starter sentences go ok but the expansion of a hearty back and forth conversation can be challenging. Yes, there are plenty of lessons about how to talk to people about what they like, and what stood out to them, etc.  In my experience, much of the time, this is all information gathering. Sometimes it sounds like well, this is what you say to get people to talk to you.  This could look like the same question being asked because they just don’t know what to say to keep a conversation going. That Authentic experience based conversation where there is talk about how something felt and reminiscing is not about gathering information.  It is a shared experience.

Now, think about if you and I were chatting, and I was telling you about my experience on a walk last night.  I started talking about how long I walked and some of the things I saw while walking. Where does your mind go?  Typically your mind goes to how this story relates to you while you are listening. You may think, Hmmm  when was the last time I walked?  Or I really need to get out for a walk!  You reach back into your own experiences and match them to what you are hearing from me.  This is the simple fact on how we all expand on conversation.

This is experience matching. What we think about when someone is telling us something…  we think about how it relates to us!  It triggers in our own minds “Oh yeah we had that happen before”  Its really difficult to respond if you cant relate to someone.  This is the elephant in the room when it comes to teaching conversation skills!

Think about a few of your last conversations.  Pay attention this coming week to your conversations.  It will confirm that your responses to conversation are based on pulling your prior knowledge on how you experience something similar
In RDI, we start working on this episodic memory early in the program.  This starting point are goals in the Family Consultation Program.  We would match experiences by calling your child’s attention to how each interaction relates to the other.  This experience sharing facilitates the development of reciprocity  Reciprocity means one communicator influences the behavior of their partner so that the behavior of both partners becomes more similar.
We then move onto Guiding our kids to understand experience matching.  One of the ways we do this is Matching your child’s experiences with something in your life either when you were a child or present. “I remember when something like that happened to me” This is making meaning for them to start relating their experiences to others…In the developmental trajectory this is labeled- Your experience/my experiences.  

In addition, you as the guide would help your child to see how their own experiences are emotionally related  I remember saying to my own son,  Remember when this happened yesterday,  when something similar happened the next day.  By similar I mean calling attention to feelings and emotions of these shared experiences, not that the same activity happened.  For Example,  you felt really proud that you were able to ride your bike,  remember last week when you felt proud that when you helped me fix the lawnmower!  Why is this important? 

Reaching back into past experiences builds competence for our future decisions.  Imagine if you could not do this or do this well?!  That you have experiences but you struggle to see how each experience relates to another.    This is not an intuitive process for your child like it is for you,  and they need support to learn how to do this…to categorize their experience into feelings and events?!  Then to revisit these experiences to determine which ones are meaningful going forward.
Ultimately once we move on to more of the Mind guiding program, which moves from shared experiences to “I” experiences,  we take a look at how the your child is reflecting on their own experiences and have unique strategies in place to continue this process. This is important because this is the foundation on how to make effective decisions about a challenge.  We all have challenges and we want to “learn from our mistakes”.  Again Imagine if we couldn’t because we could not recall how each challenge relates to another.  We would be making the same mistake over and over, expecting a different outcome!
While there are additional strategies for helping children expand on conversation, I have found the different levels of experience matching throughout the RDI program (beginner and advanced) to be the most powerful as it is based from how typical conversation expands,  through relating to what the person is saying vs simply trying to come up with successful scripts that were taught.
Additional information on the advanced RDI curriculum ( experience matching is part of that program)  is here.

Below is more information of Experience Matching from RDI connect and how this is a crucial function in decision making and making sense of how interactions unfold.

How do we go about solving problems we have never encountered before, when there is nobody available who has the proper experience. We search for similarities with problems we have solved and see if we can gain any insight through reflecting on them.  The student discovers that sometimes she can search back into the past and try to discover links between the current problem and past problems that, while not identical, have certain critical features in common.  The student looks for commonalities between current problems and similar types of prior problems. The student learns to accurately perceive commonalities and uses this information for problem-solving.
  • Learns to search for stored experience samples that ‘match’ situations they expect to encounter.
  • Finds commonalities between novel and familiar settings, without losing focus on their differences
  • Participates with guides to find experience sample that “match” anticipated and current situations.
  • When facing new situations , looks for saved experiences associated with similar types of situations.  When uncertain about a current choice, the child actively reviews past experiences to determine the consequences of similar choices. The child selects relevant memories and extracts critical information on their own
  • When facing new problems, reflects on the effectiveness of different solutions associated with similar types of problems
  • Guides initiate cues for the child to try and find similarities.

Experience matching is a mental tool we rely upon to retrieve personalized knowledge about situations we encounter or anticipate encountering. Experience matching works through an intuitive recognition process in which we either unconsciously or consciously seek out matches between the new situation and  situational schemas  we have previously constructed and stored, with each schema representing a distinct type of situation. If we determine that we have made a good-enough match, we can then access the situational knowledge we have stored and associated with this type of situation, providing us with a framework for engagement.   Dr Steven Gutstein RDIconnect.com

Want to get started supporting your child with feeling competent with authentic communication?  Contact us here.


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