A very common trait associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is having highly restricted interests which means very limited conversation topics. Some big interests of mine include aviation, boating and architecture. In fact, I am such a big aviation enthusiast that if I go to an airport I know the make and model of every aircraft there. Sometimes, I would think about aviation so much that it was all I could talk about with the people around me. For example, I would be out with friends and all I would talk about was that American Airlines Boeing 777 that I saw landing at Los Angeles International Airport a few months ago. While aviation can be an interesting topic, I realize now that solely talking about that subject can get boring after a while. Learning how to talk about topics that were fun and interesting to everyone around me was something that I had to learn through therapy.
I learned these conversational skills through practice with my family and my clinicians. The clinician who started working on this with me and really had a huge impact on my life was Danny Openden (PhD and now President and CEO of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in Phoenix, AZ) when he was a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. When I was in middle school I would go see him at the Koegel Autism Center and we would having a conversation that did NOT include a subject area I was most fixated on. He taught me to carry on a conversation on a subject that was mutually interesting to both of us including music, weekend plans etc. If, out of habit, I did slip back onto a subject that I was most fixated on, Danny would gently remind me that we were not talking about that subject. Once I mastered the skill of talking about a wider array of subject, Danny and I worked on recognizing when people were uninterested in the topic I was talking about.
This meant learning how to read peoples body language to tell if they were interested in a topic. One session, Danny and I pretended that he was a friend from school and we went to get ice cream and practiced in a social setting. That evening, I was talking about a big interest of mine which at the time was naval submarines. After a while, I saw Danny was intently scraping the spoon against the bottom of his ice cream cup. He pointed out to me how this usually means that someone is uninterested in the conversation that is happening and he suggested I find a more interesting that we could both talk about. I remembered that he really liked the Dave Matthews band so I asked him a question about that and I noticed how he was leaning in to the conversation and very engaged. This skill of reading body language was something that I have had to really practice in order to get good at.
Learning this skill has benefited me in many ways not only in high school, but in college and even to this day. For example, when I drive up to Santa Barbara to see old friends and we go out to dinner, I have found that using these skills makes the evening much more enjoyable for all of us. Rather than just talking about that airplane that I saw landing at Los Angeles International Airport, I ask my Santa Barbara friends about what they are all currently doing in life. These days, I am actually very interested in what my friends are up to which is why Facebook can be something that is very addicting for me. Aside from giving speeches about Success on the Autism Spectrum, I would have to say that having friends is one of the most important things in my life and the having that social skill is very critical in any friendship.