Conversation via templates

Something I hear sometimes from people on the autism spectrum is the idea that conversation is difficult. It isn’t universal or anything, but there does seem to be a bit of a trend that even those of us who are verbal and can express ourselves with words may not have an easy time with conversation (or in some instances, may not be able to converse at all).

I am one who has difficulty with conversation. It isn’t impossible for me or anything, but it took me a while and I’ve gone through a number of tools to try to help make it easier, some of which have worked better than others.

When I was younger I used scripts a lot. Not in the conventional autistic sense of having certain scripts that we like to use over and over and over again, but in that I would try to write out my conversations ahead of time so that I would be able to know what to say. This worked very poorly because no one ever followed their lines. Of course, I also did not tell people what their lines were, but I was pretty much always surprised when the conversation did not go the direction I had planned. Then I tended to wind up confused and caught off-guard, and didn’t know how to proceed. Sometimes my various thoughts would get all scattered, as though my script was the framework holding them in logical order and when the script failed, so did the logical order. How can I say the things I want to say when they aren’t in order anymore?

Clearly, I needed to find a better way to do conversations. Especially conversations that I was going into with Things I Wanted to Say. People often liked to tell me to just “go with the flow” which was very not helpful for me. Just winging conversations might work, sometimes, but it could just as easily (if not more so) leave me panicky and floundering in confusion. So what else to do?

I wound up settling on templates, which for me are distinct from scripts and do not have the particular pitfalls that trying to script my conversations beforehand do. One of my most basic, foundational templates is the ‘taking turns’ template. I say something, then you say something, then I say something, then you say something, etc. Ideally, we each listen to what the other person said respond to it or build on it in some way. This can be a good baseline for one-on-one conversations, but it does not translate to groups at all, and is no good for people who do not follow that basic, turn-taking formula. And in those situations, I am still stumped. It is yet another reason why groups leave me bewildered, and I cannot handle conversing with people who do things like regularly interrupt.

I have other, more specific, templates as well. For instance, the “small talk” template. Small talk is one of those things that I do not understand the importance of, but recognize that interaction goes better if I play the small talk game at least a little. I don’t need to have some deep understanding of it in order to participate.

When I need to make a phone call or talk to someone when I know I need to communicate certain things, I will often create a template for that conversation. Scripting was a way for me to order the things I had to say, and give myself a way to say them. Now, I do something kind of similar, but with flexibility built in. My usual solution is to take out a notebook and jot down all the things I know I want to say or ask about, as well as my answers to questions they are likely to ask. Even to the point of writing down my phone number so I can reference it if it’s asked for, just to make sure I don’t freeze or have a long, awkward pause while I try to grab that information. Because when it comes down to it, I have a really hard time accessing information in my memory while I am trying to navigate interacting with a person I don’t know. So to deal with that, I try to make sure there isn’t much I need to remember – instead, it’s all on the paper in front of me.

Then I can reference what I wrote, mark off what I’ve gotten to, and make sure I don’t leave things out. When things don’t go in order (and they never, ever do) I don’t risk forgetting something important, nor do I wind up so flustered that I can’t go forward.

Overall, using templates to help me talk to people has been immensely helpful. While it isn’t a perfect solution by any means, it’s the best idea I’ve had so far and it does what I need it to do.

Do you have difficulty with conversations or phone calls or such things? If so, what tools do you use to manage them?

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3 responses to “Conversation via templates

  1. I can relate to this a lot. I am very uncomfortable on the phone, except when I worked customer service for Cingular/AT&T–because they gave me a pretty thorough script. Every possible scenario had a proper response, a way to connect or comfort the customer. I find myself using a template mentality when talking to people–usually the “What do normal people reply?” template, trying to ape what the other party is expecting from a conversation, especially in small-talk. When I’m upset or crying, there’s nothing, no speech is going to happen. I still haven’t found a way to get over that bump.

  2. I think I probably do what you call templates, but which sort of still feel like scripts to me, because I rehearse them to myself. It’s almost a bit like improvisational jazz. The chords and the instruments are known, we have a basic melody line and arrangement, but the actual execution differs from performance to performance.

    Like the “how was your weekend?” script. My script/template is wait for them to ask me, say “fine, how was yours?”, wait for the answer, which is usually ‘fine’ or ‘great’ (but if it’s something else, we go to ‘honest conversation’ territory and I can abandon script), then immediately ask “oh nice, what did you do?” before they have a chance to ask me, listen to the answer, ask something about one fact in the entire verbal stew that follows, keep asking questions, if they get a question in about my weekend by accident, the answer is “nothing special”. It’s flexible enough that I can adapt it to different patterns, but specific enough that I’m not floundering anymore.

    I do the list of things I want to mention or ask about as well, especially in performance reviews at work. I need to be more meticulous about ticking stuff I’ve already covered, though. But I follow the same script there, of rehearsing possible ways the conversation can go beforehand, and varying the input often enough that I can sort of build a generalised template that is open to improvisation.

  3. Pingback: We don’t need no conversation | Aspergers and Me