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Activities to Help Autistic Children Start a Conversation

by Jaime Budzienski, studioD

Autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder, is characterized by social and communication difficulties and repetitive behavior patterns. Many children with autism find it challenging to navigate the complex web of social interaction, and can feel mystified about how to successfully interact with their peers. The first step to friendship is striking up that initial conversation, which takes a surprising degree of skill and thought, and is something that comes more naturally for more typically developing children. Some kids with autism may benefit from engaging in a structured activity that breaks down the art of starting a conversation.

Conversation Building Blocks

Learning what conversations are made up of is the first step for children with autism learning how to connect with peers. In its article "Conversation Basics: Simplifying How We Teach Conversation," the Autism Society suggests teaching kids the building blocks of conversation: asking questions ("What grade are you in?", telling stories ("One time, I...") and making comments ("Me too," "Awesome"). Practice using these basics in a one-minute conversation in a 1:1 setting, and use prompts to refer to them when needed. Gradually, advance the length of the conversation and try to decrease the number of prompts to see if your child can insert a question, comment or story correctly on her own.

Conversation Starter Cards

Kids with autism may feel as if they want to talk to a classmate or peer but aren't really sure of what to say. A good solution for this is keeping a few "conversation starter cards" in their pocket, so they can refer to them when feeling tongue-tied or nervous. You can help your child brainstorm some common questions and write them on index cards: "What's your favorite thing to do at recess?", "Have you seen any good movies lately?", "When is your birthday?"', "What's your favorite food?" Try to encourage your child to stick to topics that are likely of interest to most kids his own age, not just a personal interest.

Fact Files

If your child is looking for ways to start chatting with a peer he is already somewhat familiar with, help him make a "fact file" on this child, suggests Jeanette McAfee, M.D., in her curriculum workbook "Navigating the Social World." Tell your child that good conversationalists pull up facts they already know about a person, and then use these facts to interest this person, and show this person they care about him or her. Again, you can use index cards for this activity -- on one side, have your child write down personal details like a peer's name, birthday, family members, favorite color and favorite school subject. On the other, have him write down interests like soccer, the weather and video games. Encourage your child to keep "fact files" for people with whom he'd like to become better friends.


Videos showcasing social scenarios -- at school, on a playdate, at a birthday party, on the playground, at the library, at a restaurant -- can model good social skills for kids with autism. For example, in the series "Model Me Kids," videos for children ages 2 to 17, real children model and narrate individual social skills. The use of videos to teach conversation and social skills is backed by research through two studies at Indiana University. In an article appearing in "Exceptional Children" in 2007, researchers found that videos depicting exemplary behaviors were effective in helping children with autism spectrum disorders develop social skills as well as daily living skills.

About the Author

Jaime Budzienski has contributed essays and articles to the "Boston Globe Sunday Magazine," "Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine" and the "Boston Parents Paper." She holds a B.F.A. in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and a master's degree in education from UMASS Boston.

Photo Credits

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