Teaching Conversation Skills

Level 3: Expressive Language

Conversation skills are something we take for granted. We engage in conversations seamlessly and without second thought. We don’t need to remind ourselves to comment when someone is telling us a story or what appropriate body language looks like when engaging in small talk with a coworker. It’s second nature. All of those social skill rules related to having a conversation are engrained in our head. We know the correct volume to talk, we know to ask reciprocal questions, and we know how to switch topics appropriately. We are lucky. However for some of our learners with autism – navigating the dangerous minefield of engaging in a conversation is about as terrifying as a Monday morning without coffee. Keeping track of all of these rules is overwhelming to say the least. Some of our kids don’t pick up these rules naturally – they need to be directly taught. The pressure is on, teacher friends!

So where the heck do we even start with this monumental task?

Here a few key skills to focus on:

  • Commenting. Commenting is huge. You may want to work on this with your husband too and teach him the importance of those head nods and uhuhs as you tell him the 25 minute story about what happened to you while you were at starbucks this morning. Commenting is essential because it lets others know that you are listening to them. It lets them know you are engaged and you are paying attention. People like to talk to people who pay attention to them. Cough, cough… husband. We want our students to be people that others want to talk to.
  • Reciprocal Questions. It’s generally considered rude when someone asks you how you are and you don’t ask them back. People take that as a lack of interest. It’s just not very nice. Friends are interested in their friends. When a friend gets asked a question, they ask it back because they are interested in their friend’s response. (Social Thinking’s Unwonderer)
  • Staying on Topic. Sometimes our kids can be all me, me, me. If given the option the would spend all day talking about Cars 2 and Lightening McQueen and be completely happy as a clam. But guess what? Nobody wants to be friends with that kid. Nobody wants to spend all day talking about one topic. We need our kids to be flexible and be willing to talk about topics that aren’t their favorite. That means staying on topic and not diverting it to reptiles or American Airlines the second they get the chance.
  • Initiating Conversations. Some of our kids may be great conversationalists once they get on a roll when someone starts chatting them up. But what about beginning a conversation on their own? It’d be a boring world if we sat around all day waiting for others to talk to us. We want our learners to appropriately and effectively initiate their own conversations without missing a beat.

Now that we have some skills to focus on – how do we teach these concepts? It’s all about modeling and practicing. Our kids need so.much.practice on this. They need to see the appropriate way of doing things time and time again before they are able to do it on their own. Don’t let this discourage you. It will get there. And when it does – it’s oh so rewarding.

Tips for Modeling and Prompting

  • Have two adults in one social skill group. It’s hard to model a conversation when you are by yourself. You sound like a crazy person talking to themselves. It will be hard for your student to see the natural flow of a conversation when you are trying to model alone. Consider scheduling your social skill instruction during a time when a paraprofessional or clinician can be in your group with you. My speech therapist and I always work on conversation skills when she is in our room so we can model each concept accurately. Works like a charm!
  • Directly prompt your students what to say. Initially your student may not pick up on what phrases they are supposed to repeat or imitate after you model. You may need to directly prompt them to say certain phrases. Tell them, “Say oh cool” at first until they are consistently repeating you. Once they are successful with that – a simple nudge, eye contact, or “What should you say?” can be effectively at providing a prompt.
  • Follow the same conversation pattern for multiple members of the group. If you are asking each person in your group the same question – such as What did you have for dinner last night? Your student will have the opportunity to hear the conversation structure several times and by the time it’s their turn – they should be familiar with what they are supposed to say and ask. images
  • Use social stories to review conversation rules. Social stories are perfect to review the rules and structure of a conversation. Before starting your conversation time or beginning a social skill group – read a social story on a specific concept you want your student to improve on. This will allow them to have these prompts fresh in their head before rolling into the conversation. These conversation specific social stories are from our Visual Social Story Packet Communication Set 1 and Communication Set 2. 


  • Try Out Social Story Adapted Books. My new obsession is social story adapted books. It combines two of my favorite resources: Social Stories and Adapted Books. It gives students the opportunity to engage in a hands on task while working on behavior skills. Our first resource in this series: Communication Skills: Social Story Adapted Books contains 4 adapted books I Don’t Interrupt, Asking Politely, Commenting, and Being a Good Listener and our perfect for this topic!


When to Practice Conversations

  • Weekend Chats. My favorite way to practice conversation skills is doing a pre and post weekend chat. My kids love this so much that it’s the first thing they bring up Friday and Monday mornings. God forbid I forget one Monday and get several teenage eye rolls followed by, “Umm… Ms. Hallagan – you forgot chat about our weekend time.” Once you get your kids in a routine – they will want to follow it. It’s a great reminder and prompt for me. Us teachers can’t remember everything all the time! So how this looks is on Fridays we ask everyone what they are going to do over the weekend. This familiar topic allows my students to pick up what comments and questions they should be asking. On Mondays, we ask everyone how their weekend was. I encourage my students to ask specific questions to their peers using their “friend file” (see Social Thinking). They need to remember what their peers talked about on Friday. So instead of “how was your weekend?” they should say “how was your brother’s birthday party?” I have been amazed and beyond proud of my kids’ progress at this throughout the year. In the fall, it was pretty rough. There was a lot of prompting, a lot of robotic responses, and a lot of quiet wait time. But after time, it got more natural. It got easier. By spring, my kids barely needed me to even be involved in this. It was seriously amazing to see.
  • Conversation Topic Cards. Conversation topic cards are another favorite way to work on a variety of conversation concepts. These prompt cards provide a topic and some example questions. This gets us our of the rut of talking about the same old thing and opens us up to new vocabulary and new themes. This is a great place to start and it’s easy to differentiate this activity to make more complex. Conversation-Starters-The-Autism-Helper-1024x731
  • Morning Meeting. Morning time or circle time is a perfect time of day to work on social skills because it is natural. You generally talk to your coworkers or colleagues in the morning. Think about the small talk you engage in on a regular basis. Consider adding a question of the day or designated conversation time to your morning group. This will give your students the routine and structure they need to help them be successful. Recently-Updated117-1024x572

This post is part of the Cooking Up Communication Summer Series!

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The Autism Helper


  1. Do you have any posts on teaching social skills to our nonverbal students? He has a communication device, but it still limits his communication abilities.

  2. Do you have social stories on how to get along with others or sharing?

  3. Im an elementery school teacher in iran we have a conversation every session and students have to memorize it, they are not good at reading. What can i do?

  4. Hello,

    I am a counselor who frequently works with autistic adult clients. Do you have any visuals that would be appropriate for adults? I love the ones that you have for children, but I feel like they may look too childish for my older clients. I also have a client who needs help with receptive and expressive language (she’s 18) and visuals like these may be good for her as well. Thanks so much for your help!

  5. Hi Robin – For older students I love using real photos and google image the topics. If you purchase this product, I’d be happy to add in some real photos for you if you are interested! 🙂

  6. Hi Sasha,

    Can you send me a link or tell me where I can locate this product? I am not sure where to find it. Thank you!

  7. Hi

    I am psychologist and parent of an ASD boy. I wonder if the social story adapted books as they appear in the photos with velcro attached pictures are available for purchase.
    Please let me know

    Many thanks

  8. Thank you for explaining how you teach conversation skills. My sister has been worried about her son having autism. I bet she will be able to find people to help him adjust.

  9. Do you have any suggestions for teaching appropriate communication relating to students who have a crush or fixation on another student? Specifically when trying to reduce frequent (often not reciprocated) texting and referring to peers as boyfriend/girlfriend? Thank you!

  10. I would establish some rules or boundaries. Do a lot of discussion and role play about intended and unintended consequences of too much “flirting behavior”. I’d also see if Social Thinking would be a good fit!

  11. Do you have anything appropriate for helping a very high-functioning Asperger’s 14 year old with casual friendly conversation? He doesn’t really understand how to just chat with peers.

  12. I will look around for something like that. I’d recommend lots of role play and modeling!

  13. HI Sasha! I am collecting data to show the importance to co-treating (slp with social work and occupational therapists) specifically when working with autism. I was wondering if there was an article you referenced when stating that a social skills group should be lead by two adults to model expected conversational behaviors. Thanks in advance for you time and resources.

  14. Hi Emily! There was not a specific article that I had in mind- just my experience and past successes with teaching conversation skills. I think more data is definitely needed to demonstrate the importance and effectiveness of co-treating/collaboration!

  15. Hello,

    I have a student who LOVES to talk and dominates the conversations. Do you have any resources for this?

  16. Hi Sasha,

    Can you recommend a curriculum with strategies on how to teach conversation? I am at lost on where to start, what strategy to provide, and how to collect data. I appreciate your help.

    • Have you checked out Social Thinking?


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