May Smarty

Longer days mean waking up to sunshine and birds singing.  My children both love birds – watching birds, making bird sounds, pretending to fly, building nests with old Easter grass, etc.  One of our favorite summertime activities is feeding the ducks at a local pond. 

If you too have a budding ornithologist, May’s Smarty will be a hit.  This month the activity is making bird feeders!  Made with birdseed, unflavored gelatin and a few common kitchen items, this is a simple project with an impressive end product (I’m thinking, Mother’s Day gifts for the grandmas!). The birdfeeders are formed with a cookie cutter and can be made in almost any shape.

Like all Smart Art, making a bird feeder is a great way to work on conversation skills with your child.

There are many many strategies for teaching conversation skills to children with autism, I like to break the skills into three primary areas – language skills used in conversation (commenting, asking questions, etc.), social skills used in conversation (eye contact, proximity to others, not dominating the conversation, etc.), and motivation to engage in conversation.

Conversation skills are often challenging for children with autism because the intrinsic motivation behind most conversations is the desire for social interaction.  If a child is not especially motivated by social interaction, or finds it uncomfortable, conversation will not be a rewarding activity.

When any child (or adult!) is learning a difficult skill it helps to make the learning processes rewarding.  You can do this by selecting learning materials that will be reinforcing (e.g. using Lightning McQueen silverware or teaching spoon skills using pudding rather than split pea soup.) and / or by making the teaching environment enjoyable (e.g. working on table manners during a pretend tea party).  How do you make learning conversation skills rewarding?  Initially, select conversation topics that will be of high interest (eventually all children need to learn to how to talk about “boring” or non-preferred topics too) and/or go to a favorite location or engage in a favorite activity while having the conversation.

A craft is an excellent activity for working on conversation skills because many children find crafts enjoyable and because the craft provides a concrete basis for the conversation.  It is easier to talk about something present that can be referenced than to talk about something abstract.  You can discuss the elements of the project (materials needed, next step, etc.), ask questions about each other’s projects (asking for information), tell each other about your own project (descriptive labeling), exchange compliments, and use the project to ask about preferences and past experiences, and more (e.g. “What’s your favorite cookie cutter shape?,” “Do you remember what we did with these cookie cutters at Christmas?,” “What else could we do with these cookie cutters?”)

An activity, like a craft, is also helpful for teaching conversation skills because it more accurately mimics real life conversations.  Most conversations occur in the context of an activity (e.g., while eating, drinking, playing, working, or shopping.)  Children almost never sit still and just have a conversation.  Practicing a conversation in the context of an activity helps to eliminate some of the physical awkwardness that arises when one has to stand or sit still and converse.  Having a workspace helps to establish physical boundaries and the work itself provides natural pauses in conversation and eye contact.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it gives you some ideas for building on your child’s conversation skills.  Skills® has extensive conversation training lessons covering all of these topics and much more.  To learn more about Skills®, visit