(WHAT I LEARNED FROM MICHELLE GARCIA-WINNER AND HOW HER STRATEGY CAN WORK FOR YOU, TOO)
Many parents and teachers of children on the autism spectrum share their frustration when their kids interrupt conversations. It seems like you’re constantly telling them to stop interrupting, but it keeps happening again and again. That’s why I was so excited about one of the many excellent tips and strategies shared by Michelle Garcia-Winner [ www.socialthinking.com ] when we both spoke at the Team Mario Autism Conference in Harlingen, Texas on 12/12/2019.
One of the reasons for frequent interruption is that many of our kids with autism don’t get information from other people’s eyes. They may not realize that if you are looking at another speaker, then you are attending to that person and not available for other conversations. We try to teach them not to interrupt, but unfortunately, all too often we inadvertently reinforce the interrupting behavior.
For instance, when a child interrupts an adult conversation the parent may stop their conversation to say, “You’re interrupting. I was talking to your grandma, and you came up and started talking right in the middle of our conversation. You need to say excuse me.” Then the child says, “I’m sorry, excuse me, I just wanted to know if I could have an apple.” Mom says, “Okay, but next time don’t interrupt.” Mom may believe she has used a teachable moment and now that she has explained it, he will wait his turn next time. Unfortunately, that is not the lesson that was learned. The child actually learned that he can interrupt any time as long as he says ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry.’ There is no need to actually wait until the adults stop talking because he gets his needs met by interrupting correctly, using polite words. Next time he wants his mother’s attention while she’s talking, he’ll open his interruption with, “Excuse me,” and then proceed to interrupt. Many times parents will then stop and give him attention, wanting to reinforce the use of the polite phrase, but they are actually reinforcing interrupting.
Michelle Garcia-Winner has a strategy for stopping interruption, and it works. She demonstrated it at the conference, and we could see how simple and effective it is. Here’s my interpretation of her strategy, broken down into steps, with my parenthetical comments included:
Hold your palm toward the interrupter without making eye contact. (Why? Because this is a nonverbal, visual cue, and our kids on the spectrum respond well to visual cues. The “talk to the hand” gesture effectively creates a “wall” between the conversation and the interrupter.)
Continue to look at the person you’re in conversation with, (for instance, Grandma) and keep your body oriented toward Grandma. (I like to think of body orientation as pointing one’s head, shoulders, knees and toes toward who or what you’re attending to. It doesn’t have to be all four, but the majority of your body should be pointed toward the person you’re talking to. You know instinctively that if someone has their head turned toward you but their shoulders, knees and toes pointing in another direction, they’re only partly attending while they wait for their opportunity to escape the conversation.)
Say, “I’m looking at Grandma and I’m talking to Grandma. I’m not talking to anyone else right now.” (Don’t look at the interrupter while you say this, just talk to the air, continuing to face Grandma. Talking to the interrupter right now opens a door for an exchange, and we don’t want to reinforce that.)
Continue to attend to Grandma until the conversation is finished, without looking at or turning toward the interrupter. (You may need to keep your palm up, especially the first time you use this technique. Don’t give in to the temptation to repeat yourself, though, or you will be interrupting your own conversation. You said it once, now let your hand do the talking for you while you listen to Grandma.)
After the conversation with Grandma is over, open your body language by turning slightly away from her. (This shows visually that you are now available for other conversations. Remember, the direction your head, shoulders, knees and toes are pointing indicates who you are talking to. If you had to keep your palm up the whole time, put it down now.)
When your interrupter approaches now you can give him your full attention, orienting towards him. You might even say, “Now I’m looking at you and I’m talking to you.” (This can be useful if you have someone who has trouble reading others’ eye gaze and knowing where they’re looking or what they’re attending to.)
The next time you’re interrupted, try these simple steps, keeping your focus on the person you’re talking to so that you don’t accidentally reinforce interrupting behavior. Even if they loudly let you know what they want, resist the impulse to tell them “Okay” while they’re interrupting. It seems so easy at the moment to just allow one brief interruption so that they can run off and get their own apple (or whatever they wanted) but it’s a short term solution that leads to more and more interruptions in the future. And even if you’re not particularly annoyed by your child interruptions, think about their teacher. The teacher has lots of students and needs to attend to all of them. It gets in the way of everyone’s learning if one child has a habit of blurting out what they want to say without waiting their turn. In the long run, you’re better off taking the time to go through the steps and really stop the behavior. Your future self, and your child’s teacher, will thank you later. (And you can thank Michelle Garcia-Winner!)
By the way, this strategy works great in classrooms, too!
If you want to learn more about Michelle Garcia-Winner’s many books, curricula, and materials, go to www.socialthinking.com