You may not have noticed, but social interactions are juggling acts. They require attention and flow so that nothing falls to the ground. For example, we need to both listen AND think of what we will say next. We need to follow the trail of topic AND realize when someone is ready to switch topics. It's important to attend to context (are we at a funeral or a birthday party?) and to person (am I talking to a 7 year old or a 50 year old; a stranger or someone I know well). And need I mention eye contact? How is it that we can do all of these things at once?
For the neurotypical individual it's like riding a bike. You don't think about every piece, you just let it happen. But for the individual with autism, the multi-tasking is ever present. Many have told me, "I can either make eye contact OR listen, but I can't do both!" OR "I have a hard time listening because I know I'm going to have to say something next, and I'm trying to think of what to say."
Want to help someone with autism get the most out of the conversation?
Try eliminating some of the juggling balls.
1. Eye Contact
If the content of the conversation is the most important thing, let the individual know it's completely fine for them to look away while listening. After all, your goal is to exchange thoughts, right?
2. Freedom from Observation
Consider talking in the dark or while sitting back to back. These techniques help decrease the ASD individual's anxiety about being observed or scrutinized during conversation.
3. Keep Your Emotion Steady
If you want to have a fruitful conversation with the individual on the spectrum, keep your emotional tone steady. Attending to the emotions of others may distract the ASD individual from the actual content of the discussion.
4. Consider Email
If the conversation is going to be about an important topic, rather than just to pass the time, consider using email. Email achieves the goals above (as long as the emotions of the typed words are calm) AND allows the individual time to consider a response. Many with autism feel anxious about the speed with which they have to come up with something fairly spontaneous and relevant to say during a face to face conversation. Allow them time to consider the words and content at their own pace.
By removing some of the juggling balls, you can save the heart of the conversation!