Last month, Mobile Education released Conversation Builder, the newest addition to the Builder family—a series of language-based apps designed to meet the unique intelligence and learning styles of children with high-functioning autism and Aspergers. Billed as a conversation simulator, Conversation Builder is designed to teach elementary aged children how to have multiple exchange conversations with their peers in a variety of social settings. As a Speech Therapist, working directly with this target population, I have experienced the frustration of trying to provide meaningful conversation skills therapy within the staged awkwardness of traditional “role-play” to children to whom the very concept of “acting” is beyond their logical mindset, uncomfortable and strange. There is no script for real conversation and even the unspoken rules of conversation are malleable—changing based on context and conversation partner. Based on my disappointment with traditional social skills therapy, I was thrilled at the possibility of having a new way of addressing this complex issue. Conversation Builder does not disappoint. From the very first time my students tried it, they took to it like ducks to the water. It is engaging, personalized, and easy to use. Check out the link below for a brief video of how it works:
I absolutely LOVE this app for about a hundred reasons, but I will do my best to be succinct for the sake of the reader and focus on what makes it different from other social communication/conversation therapy approaches I have tried:
By creating a Profile for each user, conversations become personalized to the individual student. This information is weaved in naturally and used throughout the game. By allowing the child to enter their name, the app is able to provide practice knowing when and how to introduce oneself. The app also encourages children to use communication styles similar to that of their peers. When introducing himself, in the context of the game, one of my students chose: “My first name is Joe” which was technically correct, but is as narrator prompt informed him “an unusual thing to say.” He was encouraged to introduce himself using the phrasing a neurotypical peer would use—“Hi, I’m Joe”—instead.
Interest is an especially valuable piece of info to have included, as many children on the Autism Spectrum have a special and compulsive interest in a topic which they tend to bring up and discuss without regard for the listener’s interest or how it relates to the conversation as a whole. One of my students loves dinosaurs, for example, and had provided this info for his Profile. During a simulated conversation, one of the three choices provided for a response was, “I like dinosaurs,” and he impulsively chose this response, although it had nothing to do with the situation or conversation at hand. When he did so, the game’s narrator gently guided him by saying: “It’s not quite time to change the topic,” and prompted him to choose another response.
Most of the conversations that I have completed with my students have been created using the individual setting, in which the student records their half of a conversation in response to peer-voiced audio clips and an accompanying photograph. The innovative interface of Conversation Builder mimics the pattern of natural conversation, using a visual and auditory format proven effective for teaching children with ASD. The flow back-and-forth between responses is incredibly intuitive and natural, keeping the student utterly engaged while providing just the right amount of feedback and encouragement to guide them throughout. After completing the final exchange, the student is prompted to playback the entire conversation. This is a simple, but amazing feature. My students love hearing their own voices intertwined with the voice of a peer in a fluid and believable conversation.
The whole process generally takes no more than 5 minutes to complete, providing plenty of time to discuss, review, and complete multiple conversations in a single therapy session. Additionally, this time frame provides the opportunity for small groups of students to take turns creating conversations, while their partner observes, without anyone becoming bored or impatient for their turn. In a twenty minute session with two students, we have had time to create, listen to, and discuss up to six unique 8-exchange conversations (three per student)—an amazing feat in itself! After listening to the full conversation, another button then appears, allowing the SLP or child to “Save” the conversation to the student’s personalized archive. As an SLP, this is an incredibly functional and wonderful feature to have, resulting in a beautifully recorded speech/language sample that can be saved, replayed, and even emailed to an interested parent or teacher!
Beyond the Basics: Conversational Nuances
Conversation is made up of many subtle and intrinsically linked elements. As “neurotypicals,” we do all of these very complex things simultaneously, with little conscious thought or effort. Because of this, it is difficult for us to break them apart, analyze or explain them in order to teach to those who do not naturally “get it.” At the younger ages, therapy efforts are often focused on curbing undesirable behaviors—e.g., talking out of turn and rudeness—that affect the child’s ability to perform in the classroom. While this is important, going beyond the basics and accessing the kind of conversation that leads to friendship is often left by the wayside, perhaps believed to be too difficult a skill to teach. Yet, I believe many of our students are capable of understanding these more complex conversational nuances, if given a way to do so.
One of the things I love best about Conversation Builder is that sometimes the choices of responses provide some “gray area.” By this, I mean that of the 3 choices, more than one may on the surface seem good or polite, but—based on the context of the situation and the purpose of the interaction—they are not the best choice. For our kids, this is essential! Most students with ASD have been conditioned for certain types of “correct” responses. They have memorized our lessons on staying on topic and avoiding rude or unkind comments. However, in a real conversation, the best response is not simply “polite” or “on-topic.” The best response is relevant to the situation and to the speaker’s intent, engaging the listener and encouraging a response. Conversation is built on intent. If your intent is to play with a group of children, a peripherally related comment on what they are doing will not lead to them asking you to join their game.
While using this app, one of my especially intelligent 4th graders (with Aspergers) chose an incorrect response and was prompted—by the app—to try asking a question. He offhandedly commented, “It seems like [the app] wants you to ask questions.” As he finished recording his response, I asked myself—Why is asking a question often a better choice than making a comment? Almost as soon as I asked the question, it hit me: Because it keeps the conversation going. It invites a response. While commenting, “Swimming is fun,” to a group of children who are having a swimming contest is on-topic and okay to say, asking “Who holds the record?” is a better choice because now they need to answer your question! Without prompting on my part, my student made this very astute and correct observation that allowed me to think about the why of something I naturally took for granted.
I was recently reminded of the shortcomings of traditional social skills training during an interaction with one of my High School students. As I was explaining how to appropriately transition between topics in a conversation, he commented, with genuine confusion: “But I thought changing the topic was a no-no!” He’d been taught and fully taken to heart previous instruction to “stay on topic,” so much so that he honestly did not know it was ever okay to change it! Imagine how restrictive that “rule” is to any speaker! We spend so much time working on these more rote conversational skills, and our brightest students—with their black-and-white thinking and brilliant memories—have taken these rules and mentally written them—in stone. Conversation Builder gives us a chance to address the more complex nuances of conversation, to pause and discuss, review and reflect. To go beyond the basics. This is something that, in my opinion, has never been done before.
Real Teaching Moments
To some, working on conversation skills by using a technological device—no matter how advanced—may seem counterintuitive. “I don’t want my child to learn how to talk to an iPad,” one parent not-so-subtly told me. I fully agreed with this very well-read parent that children with social skills deficits desperately need and benefit from direct exposure to real live typical peers in as many natural settings as possible. The end goal for therapy of any kind always takes place outside of the therapy room. However, for children with Aspergers and other Autism Spectrum Disorders, the issue of social conversation goes beyond a lack of opportunity or simply needing more practice. Faced with a person-to-person encounter, there are a multitude of factors that interfere with a child with ASD’s ability to focus on the actual elements and flow of conversation: social anxiety, hypersensitivity to visual input—e.g., eye contact—and an overwhelming fear of being wrong. Say the wrong thing to an adult and you may get in trouble. Say the wrong thing to a peer and they’re likely to laugh in your face or call you a name or take their lunch tray to another table, permanently. To put it bluntly: If children with Autism Spectrum Disorders could learn how to communicate like their peers simply from being around their peers, it wouldn’t be a disorder.
That is why this app is so amazing. It lets a child with a social communication disorder work on the actual components of communication, separate from the anxiety and pressure induced by facing a human partner. Lets them have a minute to put a conversation on pause and think about what they want to say, without the distraction of sensing another’s real or imagined impatience or disapproval. Lets them experience the back and forth pattern of real conversations in a format they can manipulate. Lets them fix communication errors independently and rerecord misspoken responses. It not quite real life and because of this we are given multiple opportunities to teach, examine, and correct conversational skills in ways we could not do otherwise.
Children with Aspergers and other ASDs need to be taught a Reason (why) and a Way (how) to communicate. The how is addressed by learning and practicing specific conversational skills—starting and ending conversations, knowing when and how to change the topic, ask a question or share personal information. Why is addressed by examining intent—your own and that of your communication partner. Conversation Builder provides a uniquely personal, flexible, and motivating way of working on the former, while innately “building” opportunities to discuss the latter with a teacher, parent, or SLP. And, as for the why—as in—“Why are you making me do this boring therapy activity?” For now, that question is no longer on my daily table. Students want to use the iPad. They enjoy playing this “conversation game,” and I enjoy being able to focus on their responses, their perspectives, and their learning. Most of all, I enjoy seeing the sometimes ear-to-ear, sometimes purposefully suppressed smile, accompanied by the insuppressible glow of a child, with Autism, listening to himself in conversation and hearing success.