How to Improve Conversations with Your Child with ASD

How was school? How are you? How was your day?

After a long day apart, we genuinely wonder: How was my child’s day?  The difficulty comes when this approach does not result in an answer.  Or worse, it serves as a trigger.  For some children, and particularly those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), answering this type of open-ended abstract question can be extremely difficult. Many have difficulty recognizing and expressing their feelings or lack the emotional vocabulary to explain those feelings.  As a result, they may find this type of question very anxiety provoking.  Parents may find their child appears to ignore this type of question, provides a nonverbal response, or gives a predictable, but vague answer (e.g., OK). This is particularly hard for parents without ASD who view this as a positive opportunity to connect with their child and a chance to express caring and empathy. 

When open-ended check-ins do not seem to work for your child, regardless of whether or not he or she is diagnosed with ASD, sometimes a more “scientific” approach can be effective.  One powerful strategy is to use a simple rating scale.  The key is to keep it simple. The details aren’t as important as the gist of using a rating scale.  Creating a visual on paper or a white board helps to make this even more effective.  For example, ask your child:

"On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the worst day you could imagine (give an example of that type of day) and 10 being the best day that you could imagine (give an example of that type of day), how would you rate your day?" 

In my own clinical practice, there have been many times when I have found this to be an effective way to learn more about the child or young person’s experience in a safe way.  Someone who previously responded “Nothing” to the question “Are you ok?” might share that today is actually a “3” on a scale of 1-10.  Sometimes this even leads to a conversation that can help shed light on how to solve a problem.  Maybe today is a “3” because she forgot to turn in a project at school and a quick phone call to her teacher could solve the problem.  Informal rating scales are a wonderful way to check in on various things, including worries, sadness, and stress.  They offer an opportunity for individuals to share their experience in a measurable and more “black and white” way, rather than needing to begin the conversation with grayer and more abstract concepts.  They can also help shed light into patterns of moods or other concerns over time.

Think back to your own youth.  How many times would you have answered the question “How are you?” with a grumpy, vague answer?  You might have wanted to avoid a long conversation about your feelings, but actually would have benefited from some problem solving help from a parent or adult.  Using a rating scale can open a window of opportunity to learn more about your child and identify ways to help make his/her daily life a little easier.