Conversation Club Curriculum: Teaching Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder
Conversation Club provides a comprehensive instructional framework for teaching both the “how” and “why” of conversation. It targets the needs of elementary-aged children with high- functioning autism (HFA) and other social cognition challenges. The Conversation Club helps instructors guide children through the rudiments of conversation by introducing them to a clubhouse filled with a kid-friendly cast of club members, including Friendly Freddy (the President of the Club); the twins, Looking Louie and Listening Lisa; Fix It Farrah; Good Memory Maria; New Words Nate; and the club mascot, Paco the Parrot. Club meetings are specially designed to facilitate thinking about the social significance underlying each conversation skill. Conversation goal areas include conversation initiation and topic selection, topic maintenance, perspective taking, and social motivation, environmental awareness and body readiness, active listening behaviors, gaining attention behaviors, and conversation repair.
Healthy social and emotional development, and especially positive peer relationships have been shown to have a significant impact on students’ academic success. Conversation is an important means of building and maintaining friendships with peers, but for most individuals with HFA, the ability to carry on a conversation remains frustratingly out of reach. This is all part of what is known as “social cognition,” or the mental processes we use to make sense of our social world. As a result of brain-based differences, individuals with HFA experience significant social cognitive impairments.
Meaningful conversation requires the ability to quickly and accurately process a great many rapidly changing social stimuli (both verbal and nonverbal), and respond flexibly and appropriately to the conversational context. Conversational competence further requires awareness of and sensitivity to one’s conversation partner. The Conversation Club curriculum offers a unique and highly motivating way of supporting children with HFA and other social cognition challenges to master these skills and succeed in conversation with their peers.
Meet the Authors
Lynn Cannon, MEd, is the Social Learning Coordinator at the Ivymount School. She is responsible for helping develop and oversee the social learning curriculum for the Model Asperger Program, the Multiple Learning Needs Program and the early childhood program at the Maddux School. In that capacity, she works with teachers and therapists to develop and implement evidence-based social learning curricula. Lynn has a B.A. in psychology and elementary education from the College of William and Mary and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. She is the Curriculum Coordinator of the Take2 Summer Camp, a program designed to develop interaction skills and social thinking in children ages 8 through 12 in Washington DC. Lynn is the lead author of an NIH-funded intervention, Unstuck and On Target (Brookes Publishing), that targets flexibility and goal-directed behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders and ADHD. Lynn and collaborating authors are currently working on several social learning manuals and research projects, including the Unstuck and On Target companion manual for middle school students and On Target for Life.
Jonna Clark, MS, OTR/L, earned her Master of Science in occupational therapy from Ithaca College. She served as an occupational therapist at the Ivymount School, where she worked with students ages 5 through 21 with physical, social, and developmental challenges. She honed her collaboration skills and training with other special education professionals to develop a variety of classroom programs. Throughout her time working in schools, she has also worked in private clinics and worked closely with families to develop home programs. Jonna currently works with school-aged children in the public school system near Seattle, WA, helping children with a variety of challenges become more independent and successful in the school setting.
Courtney Kornblum, MA, CCC-SLP, TSSLD, is the department head of the Speech-Language Pathology Team at the Parkside School in New York, NY. She provides speech and language therapy to elementary school children who come from diverse ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds and have a range of language-based learning difficulties. Courtney enjoys collaborating with an interdisciplinary team as well as supporting the professional development of the speech and language department. She graduated with honors from the Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in communication sciences and disorders and a minor in human development and family studies. She received her Master of Arts degree in speech and hearing sciences from the George Washington University. Courtney previously served as a speech-language pathologist at the Ivymount School and the Maddux School, primarily working with elementary school children with varied speech and language challenges attributed to autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays, specific learning disabilities, and other health impairments. Thanks to the collaborative and transdisciplinary nature of these programs, Courtney and her colleagues had the opportunity to create and implement the Conversation Club curriculum.
Eve Müller, Ph.D., is the Coordinator of Program Evaluation and Outcomes Research at the Ivymount School, where she evaluates the effectiveness of various programs and curricula for students on the autism spectrum. She received her Ph.D. in education and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) from UC Berkeley and has published extensively on ASD and social and emotional learning. She is a co-author of the forthcoming Ivymount Social Cognition Instructional Package (IvySCIP), a comprehensive online program that supports instructors of K–6 students with high-functioning ASD through all phases of social and emotional learning instruction — from assessment through IEP goal development, selection of curricular resources, and progress monitoring. Prior to completing her doctoral work, she managed residential and integrated work programs serving adults with ASD.
Michal Powers, LCSW-C, RPT, has been a practicing clinical social worker since 1997, specializing in therapy with children and adolescents with special needs in residential, outpatient, and school settings. Michal has a B.S. in psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a master’s degree in social work from the Catholic University of America. Michal has also taught preschool, where she witnessed the important role of play not only for learning but for emotional and social development. This rich experience was the motivation for obtaining a certification as a registered play therapist. Since 2010, Michal has provided mental health counseling services to elementary- and middle-school children with developmental disabilities in the Ivymount School’s Multiple Learning Needs program. In addition to providing individual and small group counseling sessions, Michal facilitates the Conversation Club Curriculum.Bobby Whalen lives in Washington, DC, with his family. He has been drawing, illustrating, and creating magical art, stories, and animations his whole life. He is a high school student at the Ivymount School and has autism. Bobby aspires to be an illustrator for Scholastic Books and plans to live independently and travel.