LIFE SKILLS: The importance of asking questions for those with an ASD
By: Christy Hawkins, LMSW | 2012-07-31

 “If I had to choose between starving and calling McDonalds just to see what time they closed, I would rather starve.” –Spoken by a 30 year old friend of the authors, who also happens to have Aspergers.

            As a counselor working with students that have an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis (ASD) and/or have a learning disability, I see time and time again how some of the “simplest” daily social skills are, in fact, a challenge for people that experience life on the Spectrum.  The level of anxiety and self-doubt that can be generated when having to make a phone call, self-advocate or choose between two equally appropriate options can be difficult for a neuro-typical person to understand, as these actions are often second nature.  However, for an increasing number of people, these life/social skills require guided practice and continued support in order to promote personal success in this area.

            Why would a phone call to McDonalds be so difficult?  One explanation is that those with an ASD can struggle with interpreting social messages. This includes connecting tone of voice to emotion, understanding sarcasm and interpreting verbal messages very literally.  Experiencing sudden change and unexpected results are additional factors that can increase feelings of anxiety for someone on the spectrum.  As each phone call is never the same as the first or the last, the inconsistent results and the unknown outcome can further contribute to anxiety.  At the source of most anxiety is some sense of fear and it is only in identifying the root of that fear that the anxiety decrease.  Without necessarily realizing it, there are several possible steps that one must process when faced with a need for a particular answer.  While these steps have the potential to overcomplicate and possibly overwhelm, what about helping those on the spectrum to ask themselves an alternative set of questions:

Step to take: Identify a problem/question…     

*Alternative question to ask self: What is bothering me right now?  (If the person can identify the “bother”, then that is feasibly the problem that needs addressing).

Step to take: Understand that there is needed information              

*Alternative question to ask self: What do I need to make the problem better?

Step to take: Determine the appropriate resource to provide information/answers to the problem/question…

*Alternative question to ask self: Who can help me find the answer?

Step to take: Be able to communicate problem to the resource in a manner that will obtain needed answer…      

* Alternative question to ask self: I need_______, can you help me or do you know how I can find the answer?

Step to take: Be able to correctly interpret response…         

*Alternative question to ask self: Does that solve my problem or answer my question?

Step to take: Internalize response in order to apply information to future problem-solving scenarios…        

*Alternative question to ask self: What other questions could this answer apply?


Then, help the person PRACTICE these questions in real time.  Offering a written script to simply “study” is not nearly as meaningful as role-playing.  Encouraging the use of technology to assist in this process can be effective. When working with a person that may have difficulty verbally expressing themselves, encourage the person to type or write out their question and then a script of what they would like to ask their resource.  Those that have difficulty typing or writing could use the voice

messaging system on their phone to practice, rewind and listen to as a way to prep themselves.  If anxiety is generated during this process, and self-doubt creeps in, then a limit of 2-3 practices may be required.


Another component to address head-on during practice opportunities is that of verbal pace and tone- both for the questioner and the responder.  For example, what if the person practicing determines that their problem is a need for transportation and they have to call a cab company? Cab companies typically receive a high volume of calls and require information from their callers in a speedy manner- the operator may also reply in a fast, abrupt tone.  This is where encouraging the importance of “breathing through” the phone call will be relevant.  The caller can be prompted to pause, take a breath and practice saying such lines as, “Can you please repeat that for me?”

Part of the challenge for a person with ASD to become comfortable with phone calls, is nurturing the courage to then call back if they have not received the needed information.  They can first review their script of questions and if an answer is not able to be determined, then a back-up plan of calling again (or seeking another cab company to call, etc) should also be reviewed.  It is equally important that the person know that phone calls are not an exact, perfect way of communicating, the ability to accept an element of imperfection while remaining flexible is absolutely key for those that struggle in this area.  Again, the importance of practice along with reassurance; do not hesitate to share some of your own personal “worst calls.”  Finding a silly call gone wrong via Youtube is another option to demonstrate the imperfection aspect to this skill.

Our culture can be one that generally values the answer provider over the person that is doing the asking and therefore it makes perfect sense that there are those that struggle with asking questions and seeking answers.  It is a lot of pressure.  However if those on the spectrum can become familiar with asking themselves questions, identifying the appropriate resource and trying with support this will ultimately enable them to increase their ability to be the answer provider themselves.  The key is assisting people with an ASD to have plenty of exposure and opportunity for a positive learning experience.  Picking up the phone to place a call may not exactly become second nature however the process can become a more comfortable skill overall.



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