My clients rarely speak on the telephone. They make the obligatory calls to parents and grandparents, but the length of these calls is short (although my clients will say that they are painfully long!).
1. Make it like ordering a pizza: Give it a purpose. Small talk and chitchat are not strengths of most individuals with ASD because they have endless variations and rely on people’s mood as much as setting and interests. If you give your son or daughter a purpose, there is an implicit structure and endpoint. These purposes can be vast but must be reciprocal. For example, talk about one part of your school day and ask Dad what he did at work today.
2. Practicing a sample phone conversation with common conversation topics is also critical. This practice must be with actual phones, such that your child understands how to dial and answer a phone, end a call, send a text message, and find a number in “contacts”.
3. Give your son or daughter a picture of the conversational partner to “talk to”. Being unable to see their conversational partner is one of the most common reasons why talking on the phone is so difficult, according to my clients. We can’t all have that neat (and, I thought utterly useless) iPhone function that lets us see ourselves and our caller.
4. What to do…..with those…..awkward……pauses? My clients feel those pauses like a stoppage in the playback of a movie — seemingly endless and significantly awkward. I’ve tried to convince kids that they happen all the time, a very ineffective assurance, because the heart of the issue is how to end the pause. My clients don’ t know how to because they don’t know what to say, so they are at the behest of their conversational partner, while knowing they should be generating something. Talk about pressure.
5. Relieve the pressure. Take charge in the conversation. Ask direct questions and narrate your thinking. The latter takes practice. Phrases like, “Hmm, I’m thinking about what you just said” or “give me a sec” help define the silence and structure the conversation.
Above all, keep things short. Being nearby and monitoring the conversation provides a lifeline to ending the anxiety.