Have you ever watched someone walk a tightrope at a circus or on TV, like Nick Wallenda’s Grand Canyon adventure? It is a tedious, breath holding process to behold!! This image came to mind when watching a young lady with ASD navigate the treacherous waters of having a conversation with a new classmate. She wants to have friends and has been working very,very hard at figuring out all the moving parts to a conversation, both verbal and non-verbal. I imagine the practice and dissection of conversational skills in speech therapy is like working with a net when you first learn to walk on a tightrope. You wobble and try to correct missteps, but have the comfort of knowing that if you fall, you are safe. Something (or someone) is there to catch you and help you try again. But conversations with peers on your own? That is like walking the Grand Canyon without a net.
For students who do not have social language impairments, they almost effortlessly glide across the conversational ropes, maintaining topics, eye contact, body proximity, tone of voice and humor without even thinking about it. They learned these skills incidentally and don’t have to think about the moving parts of talking to people and making friends. That’s not to say that these students don’t make mistakes, we all do! The difference is they can learn and apply these subtle social rules in the moment. This particular young lady I mentioned has tried to make new friends before. Her first attempt started with “I know you are new here, but I just want to tell you, you don’t want to make me mad. I can get very, very mad.” The new student just stared back at her, not really knowing what to say.
In talking with the young lady later, her thought process was preventative; if I tell a new friend that I can get mad, I am doing them a favor! Then they will know how to act around me and we will get along great! She did not recognize that she was being perceived as threatening and sending signals that she is probably not someone you would want to hang around with. For younger students, I love the book You Will Be My Friend by Peter Brown. It offers a good conversation about how the main character wants friends, and the many wrong ways she tries to find one (spoiler:there’s a happy ending). I have created a lesson to go along with the book here. For older students, video clips are great examples of friendships. I love Ned’s Declassified from Nickelodeon. Here’s a link to an episode on what makes a good/bad friend. It’s about 12 minutes long, so view it and mark different sections to use. You can develop a whole month’s lesson plan from this one show!
It’s important to remember that friendship is a high level skill. We have to focus on breaking down all the conversational pieces needed to succeed and teach them systematically, prior to attempting free range social interactions. To use the tightrope analogy again, you walk a short rope, low to the ground when you start, not a mile long rope across two skyscrapers on a windy day! I happened to run into the young lady this week that I mentioned earlier. She and I had a short conversation in the hallway and she checked in visually with me, demonstrated some new turn taking skills, and monitored her affect, tone of voice and volume beautifully! She is still working on maintaining topic (she turned the conversation towards Minecraft, her favorite) but she didn’t fall off the rope, just wobbled a bit. She is figuring out how to navigate the social world, one step at a time.