At a conference, I attended a decade ago, I saw a hard working mother trying to teach her son to have a conversation with another child.
The mother had ‘coached’ the other child about the questions she should ask her son.
The girl tried her best to ask the question, but her son did not answer.
So the mother ‘prompted’ the girl to ask the question again.
This time she was prepared with a prompt for her son too.
When the little girl asked the question, she held up a card with the answer written for her son. It was a visual ‘cue’ for the little boy who read out the answer from the card.
Wow! That’s an unnatural conversation, I thought to myself.
That ‘conversation’ never left my memory.
The way emerged for me a couple of years later.
At a training I attended by Dr Gutstein, he commented on having meaningful conversations by sharing a wonderful example.
Imagine you meet a friend and have the most delightful conversation over coffee. As you say goodbye to each other, you comment, ‘let’s meet again at the same place and have the exact same conversation.’
Wouldn’t you feel odd?
(These are not his exact words, but you get the drift).
Conversations are interesting because of the way they flow.
Each conversation has an element of novelty that cannot be scripted.
The underlying facial expressions and gestures have a huge role to play.
We don’t know what the person is going to say next.
We go with the flow. There is nothing black and white about a conversation.
Conversations are permeated with grey shades.
Yet we script conversations for autistic individuals.
We may not be able to ‘teach’ conversations.
But we can definitely work on some foundations to enhance the individual’s ability of having meaningful conversations.
If we want our students and children to communicate effectively, the 3 C’s have to be in place.
1. Co regulation
Image: Dr Rachelle Sheely
Watch this video to gain an understanding of the impact of co regulation.
Co regulation is the basis of conversation. It is actually a prototype for a conversation.
Once the pattern was established with the ball play, Sanjeev had to adjust with me about his position.
He was not told where he needed to stand.
When in doubt, he studied my facial expressions and gestures.
He had to figure on his own. I was not going to instruct him.
See the similarity? In a conversation – nobody tells you what to say.
You have to figure what you want to say based on the other person’s thoughts and actions.
This is an extremely important foundation. If it’s not in place, students are left at the mercy of words, without a foundation in place.
What about the underlying, non verbal components which add richness and meaningfulness to communication?
2. Co ordination
One of the dictionary meanings of co ordination is-
cooperative effort resulting in an effective relationship.
In his student curriculum, Dr Gutstein lays down an objective for co ordination. Students coordinate their actions with Guides, while involved in simple back-and-forth and simultaneous, mutually imitative activities (e.g. Passing an object back-and-forth, pulling on a rope back-and-forth in a fluid manner, stopping and starting). Students remain coordinated while following their Guide’s lead, while jointly making a rapid series of regulating actions to adjust to their Guide’s simple variations (e.g. faster, slower, higher, lower, put on, take off).
Look at this delightful student as he co ordinates with me.
The emphasis is not words, but the underlying co ordination between us.
Note they dynamic, meaningful eye gaze.
He wants to keep up with me, go slow or fast as I go slow or fast.
Co ordination emphasizes a strong emotional connect and is not the same as imitation.
He may not get it exactly right, but has the resolve to keep up with me.
Let’s take this a step ahead to conversation.
Your partner may switch topics, but because you’re enjoying the conversation, you keep pace and add value to the conversation.
You both co ordinate with each other to keep the conversation flowing effortlessly.
Co ordination is an important foundation for conversation.
If you’re collaborating on an art project with your student, you go back and forth with each other to make decisions and then come up with a final project- that both of you have put together.
Watch this delightful video to learn more.
Look at how well this mother and child collaborate with each other.
Each brings something to the table.
A good conversation is not one sided.
It’s not one person asking questions and the other person answering.
It’s both participants adding their thoughts, listening, responding meaningfully and building it up together.
Notice the similarity with conversations?
You may not be able to see the roots of a tree and yet the tree lives because of it’s roots.
Similarly, to have effective conversations, we must keep these ‘3 roots’ in mind.
1. Co regulation
2. Co ordination
This is deep. It’s more effective and authentic than prompting and cajoling your child to respond.
It’s also hopeful.
If you would like hands on practice with these concepts, reach out to set up an individualized, exclusive session with me.
Your child or student can do it. Age is not a limitation.
Kamini Lakhani is the founder and director of SAI Connections. She has been providing services in the field of autism for more than 20 years and is the authorized director of Professional Training for RDI in India and the Middle East. She is also the mother of a young adult with autism.