Conversation & Autism: How to Break the Ice & Make Small Talk

Learn from my son’s tried and true formulas!

You man with his mother
Diego and the author. Photo by Fer Neri

Autism, as defined in the DSM-5, involves “Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.” My 26-year old autistic son, Diego, decidedly has immense difficulty sustaining lengthy back and forth communication, especially about topics he’s not passionate about.

He’s an expert, however, at breaking the ice and making small talk both with people he knows and perfect strangers. It’s a remarkable thing. Over the years, he has developed various formulas that are nearly 100% successful. Following are three of them.

1. Where-you-from, compliment and good day

We had about a quarter-mile to go on our run when Diego spotted a landscaping crew on the front yard across the street.

He stopped, took a few steps toward them and said: “Hi! I’m from here. Where you from?”

The three men looked up and one said, “Guatemala.”

Registering friendliness, Diego continued walking to the curb across the street -not a moment too soon, by the way, as he was standing right in the middle of the street.

“I’ve a book about Guatemala. There are volcanos in Guatemala,” he noted with delight.

“Yeah, they’re like triangles,” said the fellow.

Diego glanced at the man’s shirt, “I like your shirt. Jurassic Park, 1993.” Movie title and year is the way Diego invariably cites movies.

“Oh, that’s my favorite movie,” said the guy, smiling.

“The dinosaur eats the fat guy…,” Diego continued as I took his hand and told him we should get going.

With a wave and a “Good day, good day!” Diego took leave of the smiling men.

This recent exchange between Diego and three perfect strangers contains the classic elements of Diego’s most frequent technique:

  • When people might come from somewhere else, begin with “I’m from here. Where you from?” Diego knows, for instance, that people with accents or in landscaping are usually not from here. Profiling is wrong, except when Diego does it.
  • Show genuine interest in the place the interlocutor’s from. Say something specific about it.
  • Give a compliment. Shirts always work.
  • The shirt, or other complimented object, is the source of the next comment.
  • Take leave with a beaming smile, a wave, and an original farewell. Diego always opts for “Good day. Good day!”

About shirts: Diego can instantly come up with a comment for any shirt. Say the shirt says Harvard, he might say, “My friend Owen and my cousin Fernanda live in Boston. I’ve been to Boston in November 2019.” If it’s a plain white shirt, he might say, “Nice shirt. I like white, like the clouds,” or “I like your white shirt. White like Snow White 1938.”

2. Happy-insert holiday, compliment, farewell

Diego and I went to the post office a couple of weeks ago to send some tax document “registered receipt” and buy two rolls of stamps for my husband, who markets his real estate services through mailings (you know, those envelopes you think everyone throws out).

Here’s the interaction between him and the post office clerk:

“Hi. Happy Fourth.” It was still June 26, but Diego begins observing holidays 10 days ahead.

“Yeah, it’s coming up,” she said.

“Next Friday,” Diego specified. “I like your shirt.”

“I like your lion,” said the lady, referring to the lion shirt Diego was wearing. “I saw the Lion King on Broadway. Did you see it?

“I saw it in 2003.” Diego’s our ready reference for information about dates: What year did Nonno die? (2008) What years did we go to Italy? (2003, 2005, 2007 and 2012)

Post office lady then said, “I saw the Wizard of Oz, How about you?”

Never one to say no, Diego replied, “I saw Mamma Mia and Frozen.”

I was done paying and it was time to go, but the lady took the time to further comment, “Oh, I’d love to see Mamma Mia.”

With his wave and smile, Diego wrapped up the interaction, “Happy Fourth! Good day!”

3. Talk to the interlocutor’s life and interests, and let them know you miss them

Here are some things Diego typically says during his daily conversations with nonna, who lives in Venezuela. I can only hear what Diego says, of course.

“Ciao nonna, come stai?” (Hi Nonna, how are you?)

“Ho mangiato la pasta.” (I ate pasta.)

“How’s Monica? How’s Carmela?”

“What have you been watching on TV?”

“Nonna, come visit me. Come live in the United States with me.”

This formula is reserved for people Diego knows, and these are its three basic elements:

  • If the person speaks another language, such as nonna (Italian) or Abuela (Spanish), he’ll do his best to use as many words as possible in their native language. Diego is fluent in Spanish, so he has little trouble there. His Italian is limited, but when he calls nonna, he says every work he knows in Italian, even if out of context. Take a listen to his 10-second 80th birthday message to nonna!
  • Diego always inquires about the individual’s loved ones, and specific job or interests.
  • Every time, he tells people he’d love to see them, to please come visit, or better yet, to come live with us at our house.

In addition to autism, Diego has an intellectual disability, but you’d be surprised how much anyone could learn from his original mind and perfectly loving heart.

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A Catholic Church Twice Rejected My Autistic Son

It hurts more when rejection comes from those who should love him unconditionally

Teenager smiling
Confirmation day. Diego chose the name Harry, as in Harry Potter

One of the main reasons I decided to register my sons, Diego and Andres, for religious education class was that I thought the church would be a place where Diego would be wholeheartedly welcomed and included. So I made an appointment with Mrs. McKenzie, the head of religious education at Saint Isabel’s Catholic Church, to explain that Diego had an intellectual disability and autism and discuss how he could be part of their classes.

I figured that the simplest and most inclusive solution was for Diego to have an aide and be with his peers in the regular class.  After all, he was in a regular education fifth-grade class with an aide a few hours a day. I’d pay for an aide they hired, go out and hire one, or be the aide myself, I offered. Whatever worked best for them!

Mrs. McKenzie went for the last option which, incidentally, delayed Diego’s participation. Due to the clergy sex abuse scandal, I had to attend a mandatory workshop for any adult who’d be in contact with children. No problem, I understood, and so I completed the workshop.

In the end, however, Mrs. McKenzie decided to have a catechist, Mrs. Jones, work individually with Diego.

Why did Mrs. McKenzie have me do the workshop then? Why could Diego not be in the group class with me, as we’d agreed? Why had she changed her mind?

I did not ask. They probably know better; they probably just really want him to learn the material well; I should be grateful, I told myself. I was afraid. I was also naive not to consider that perhaps Mrs. McKenzie and the powers that be simply didn’t want my son with the other kids?

Diego started his private lessons, which, to my delight, he really liked. He loved the story of Moses and Jonah in particular: a magic staff that turns into a snake, a whale so big it looks like an island, a desert journey, kings and sorcerers –  the kind of magical and colorful stuff that fascinates him. A year later, Diego and Andres received their first communion. Things were working out.

In the fall, religious education classes resumed. As far as I knew, Mrs. Jones was fond of Diego and all was going well. However, in January, I got a call from Mrs. McKenzie. Even though we hadn’t had any personal contact for a year and a half, I knew she was calling about Diego. Perhaps Mrs. Jones was leaving, or I’d need to pay extra because Diego was receiving individual attention, I thought.

Neither was the case. Diego had pushed Mrs. Jones during dismissal, she explained. “We cannot have that, so it’s best if Diego stops coming,” Mrs. McKenzie said. She had kicked Diego out of religious education class, just like that, over the phone. The words were like a punch in my gut.

Over the ensuing weeks, I was insanely sad, hurt and angry. How hard was the push? If Diego did push, why did he do it? Were there no other options other than to expel him? Diego was a small and skinny child; he wouldn’t hurt anybody. Plus I’d made myself available for anything they needed.

How could a Catholic Church reject a child (especially one with a disability) for allegedly pushing an adult? Did Jesus not love children, according to all four Gospels? The Church is supposed to embrace the weak, the poor, those in need. Plus it maintains, dogmatically, that all children conceived should be born, no matter how disabled they may be. But then it rejects them and their families without any compassion?

“Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” (Luke 18:15-17)

Shortly after Diego’s expulsion, Andres said he didn’t want to go to religious ed class anymore and I stopped taking him. Like many children, he found them boring and went because I said he had to. As happened several times in his childhood, Diego was the determinant of my decisions about Andres.

As it turns out, Diego was persistent that he wanted to do his Confirmation. His beloved cousin had recently had hers. Diego loves all holidays, ceremonies and rituals, plus the chance of choosing a Confirmation name was not something he could easily give up.

A year later, I went to another Catholic church in town, prepared for obstacles. To my surprise, Diego was allowed to receive the sacrament after attending the requisite classes with me as his aide. He chose Harry, as in Harry Potter, as his Confirmation name.

The world of magic, religion and myth all merge in Diego’s imagination. He loves religious imagery and likes to pray when he’s anxious.

Still, the hurt remains- for me. It’s one thing for a summer camp program or a private school to reject your disabled child. It altogether different when rejection comes from an institution that preaches Jesus’s message of love and compassion.

About ten years after the expulsion episode, I went back to St. Isabel’s to ask for Diego’s First Communion certificate. He needed this document so he could be the godfather of one of his baby cousins. I filled out a form and the lady at the desk said she’d call when it was ready.

Before leaving, I decided then and there to bring up my experience of a decade ago. I asked to speak with the priest, who happened to be there. I told him about Diego and how he’d been kicked out of religion classes. Believe me, I was meek and deferential when I addressed the priest, as my Catholic upbringing instilled.

To my utter disbelief, the priest just said that physical aggression was not justifiable under any circumstances and that he didn’t understand why I was bringing this up now. Not a trace of compassion or curiosity to find out more.

Again, I felt the punch in the gut. I turned around and left without saying a word, as I truly could not speak.

I never got a call from St. Isabel’s to pick up the certificate.

*Note: Names of churches and catechists have been changed.

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