Our occupational therapist, Katie Frank, and I have been running some social skills groups. We have had such demand that we have started to offer two different groups, one for ages 12-17 and one for ages 18 and older! We have recently worked on the topic of reciprocal conversations with both age groups.
Reciprocal conversations, or, as I like to call them, “back and forth conversations,” can be challenging for some of our patients with Down syndrome. Many people with Down syndrome have particular topics that they like to talk about. It may be hard for them to change the subject from these particular topics. They may have a hard time thinking of questions to ask the other person to keep the conversation going. This can result in the person with Down syndrome doing all of the talking in the conversation or only focusing on specific topics. This can be frustrating for both peers and family members and may negatively impact people in work situations.
So how can you work on this issue with someone with Down syndrome? In the group, we talk about a back and forth conversation being like throwing a ball. Throw a ball back and forth with the person with Down syndrome. Talk about how each person takes a turn throwing the ball and then throws it back. Talk about how a conversation is like this – one person talks, then the other person responds. Have a conversation with the person while throwing the ball to emphasize this idea. If you catch the person with Down syndrome doing all the talking in a conversation, remind them about how the conversation should go back and forth, just like a ball. People with Down syndrome also learn best by watching others. It may help the person with Down syndrome to watch you and a typical peer or family member model what a back and forth conversation is like.
If the person with Down syndrome has a hard time thinking of appropriate topics for conversations, it may be helpful to make a list of possible topics with them. You can also practice having conversations about these topics. It may be a good idea to do this if there is a special event coming up, such as a party, family celebration, or even starting at a new school or day program. It would be beneficial for the person with Down syndrome to be able to practice appropriate conversations that they might have at the particular event. If the person has limited verbal skills, a book with pictures about their life can be a great conversation starter or a way to introduce themselves to peers and staff in a new situation.
I have worked on the topic of reciprocal conversations with both of the age groups we are currently offering groups for and it was interesting to see the differences in skills in these different age groups. Certainly there is a lot of maturing and acquiring of skills that happens during adolescence and this seems to be even more true for our patients with Down syndrome. There can be a big difference in social skills and maturity between a younger and older teenager. So if you are struggling with your middle schooler, don’t despair! There is still a lot of maturing that will take place!