Building Conversation Skills for Kids with Autism | Communication Skills Development

Many parents of young children with autism dream of the day when they can have full conversations with their children, but getting children who are not talking much or at all to become conversational is a big mystery for most parents and professionals, so today I’m going to break it down and talk about how to teach conversation skills to children with autism.

Let’s think about a conversation between two adults on the phone. Say I call up my mom on the phone and start with, “Hey, mom. How are you?” In verbal behavior terms, this is an advanced mand or request for information. So my mom might answer with, “I’m feeling okay,” or “I’m feeling a little sick,” or “I’m doing great.” That answer is an advanced intraverbal. Right after my mom answers my question though, she will probably ask how my day is going too, so we bounce back and forth between advanced mands or questions to intraverbals or answers to the question. So if I’m in a rush and don’t have time to talk, I’ll stop manding to my mom and try to get off the phone, just answer her questions and tell her I’m in a rush and quickly get off the phone.

But when we think about having conversations, it’s basically a mixture of advanced mands, asking questions, and intraverbals, answering questions. For my clients who went from not talking to conversational, we programmed using the VB-MAPP for years, teaching early mands, requests for things the child wanted first, whether they wanted them or needed them such as food and drink and of course the iPad. Then we moved on to manding for actions, such as come, up, help, push. We had the child manding for missing items by programming for these things, then manding for attention, which is really hard because it’s hard to program for teaching a child to want somebody’s attention, which involves a lot of capturing and contriving the motivation. Then finally, mands for information, like I asked my mom, “How are you today?”

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Intraverbals or the answer part of questions start off with basic fill in the blank with the last word of songs, such as “twinkle, twinkle little …” Leaving that blank, the child would fill in “star.” Moving up to filling in with words, such as, “You sleep in a …” bed, and, “You drink from a …” leaving that blank, and the child would answer with or without pictures present. Then we move on to more answering questions, like “Where do you sleep?” which begins to build more and more complexity. Answering questions like “What do you eat in the morning that is warm?” Is a lot harder than answering “What can you eat?” Because what do you eat in the morning that’s warm involves eating, morning, so the discrimination of what you eat in the morning versus lunch time or dinner time, and then warm involves knowing cold, hot, warm, those sorts of things, so it’s pretty complex. It’s not just a matter of a child can ask and answer questions, but that conditional discrimination or how complex the questions can get before they fall apart.

I remember years ago listening to Mark Sundberg present, who is the author of the VB-MAPP, and he also wrote the forward for my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach, and Mark Sundberg said, “What do you wear to the beach?” is a question. “What do you take to the beach?” is a question. We change one word, we change the answer, and this is why intraverbals are so, so hard for kids, and not just English and not just kids with special needs, but you really need to be four or five years old before you can get to talk about these things that involve such complexity.

Over the past two decades I’ve been in the autism world, I’ve learned that conversation skills need to be taught systematically, and most times it takes years to build full conversational language. Also, children and adults with cognitive impairment in addition to autism like my son, Lucas, may have the ability to ask and answer some questions, but are not be able to ever acquire full conversational speech. My best advice to build conversation skills is to assess and program using the VB-MAPP assessment and make basic manding the centerpiece of your child or client’s program.

To learn more about how to build conversation skills, sign up for my free intermediate workshop at MaryBarbera.com/intermediateworkshop, or push the button on this page and I’ll see you right here next week.

Want to learn more about programming and the three biggest mistakes autism professionals make
with intermediate learners? Sign up for my free online workshop!

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