“I want Lugia! You know Lugia, don’t you!?” The McDonald’s cashier only wants to know the order and whether to supersize it, yet my 17-year-old client persists:
“Lugia is a legendary Pokémon that first appears in Pokémon Gold and Silver, appearing on the box art for Silver. Lugia, thought to be the guardian of the sea, resides deep in the ocean floor. It spends most of its time at the bottom of the sea due to its tremendous power, which includes toppling houses by merely flapping its wings and the ability to start storms that can last for over 40 days. It is usually seen near the beginning of storms, and it often uses its wings to calm them. Lugia’s signature move is Aeroblast.”
“But what are you ordering?”
Without skipping a beat, “There’s also Combusken…”
Whether the topic is out of reach because it is too esoteric, not age-appropriate, boring, sex-politics-religion (my clients often say this threesome as one word), or a woman’s age, sometimes the interests of children and adults with ASDs prove to be quite challenging to the audience. If you are like most while reading the above paragraph, you recognized, maybe understood, some of the terms and references; then, your eyes glazed over, either due to boredom or confusion. The individual with ASD often fails to notice your change in countenance. Even in a friendlier environment, monologues of this nature may start without harm and end without amends, as the wait staff, your friends and neighbors, and strangers might attest to.
There is much to learn from these situations, as long as we have a method to both derail and process the interaction. I would wager a guess that processing these situations is not nearly as challenging as stopping them. I recommend creating a plan with the individual before the conversations begin. Using a verbal cue can be very successful. Changing the subject is too subtle, appearing to the individual with ASD that YOU have interrupted him or her, rather than appearing like a polite signal of inappropriateness. Instead, you should be upfront and succinct with a phrase that is recognized, while allowing the saving of face. Something as simple as “time to change the channel” can be very effective if paired with the idea that there are different “channels” (or topics) that are appropriate in different situations and settings. A more subtle approach is a tactile cue, such as a tap on the shoulder or on the leg, that has been predetermined to mean something very specific: “Stop X and talk about Y.”
If the train keeps chugging, I would recommend that the conversational partner discharge his or her attention by walking away. Again, this strategy is not subtle; walking away is designed to ensure that the individual with ASD recognizes you are not listening (though they do not know why at this point) and that the listener does not continue to placate the situation. If you are wary of such a conspicuous solution, please do not use phrases such as, “This is not the time” or “Not everyone wants to hear about…..” These phrases are vague and begging to be ignored; they are usually verbalized in haste and for the adults to subtly say to the other person, “I’m sorry about this.”
Most importantly, be careful to not inadvertently reinforce the topic and be not afraid to jump in. Feigned interest, such as questions or real attempts to make sense of something that most people could care less about, do only a disservice. There is a fine line between being rude and disrespectful and tolerating a non-preferred topic because the individual with ASD should too. That line widens in public and must be tended to by interrupting and redirecting as soon as possible. If we hesitate, Lugia lives on…