Experience Sharing Communication
By: Erin Roon, MA CCC-SLP
Take a moment to read this short conversation between a mother and son. As you read, think about what is being communicated. Are you able to get a picture in your head?
“Hey mom, you’ll never believe this! I saw a baby turtle in the road.”
“Really, I wonder how big it was.”
“Very small, only this big (indicates the size of a half dollar with hands).”
“Wow, I’ll bet he was scared being in the middle of the road. Maybe he was lost.”
“I didn’t think about him being scared; maybe I should move him out of the road. Do you think he was trying to get to the lake?”
“I think it would be very nice if we go back down and move him out of the road. I bet he was trying to get to the lake to take a swim. It’s a hot day, and I think turtles like to swim just as much as little boys.”
Vignettes like this are very common place among parents and children. This is an example of experience sharing communication at its best. The majority of the communicating we do is for experience sharing purposes.
Now read the following conversation between a mother and her son. Do you notice a difference?
“Hi Jimmy, how was your day?”
“What did you do at school today?”
“You didn’t do anything?”
“Did you read any books or do any math?”
“What book did you read?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you go to gym today?”
“What did you do in gym?”
. . . And on and on it goes.
Does this exchange sound familiar? This dialogue is an example of imperative communication. Were this mother and son conversing? Yes. Were they communicating? No. Is the son in this vignette even really listening to what his mom is asking? He doesn’t need to put a lot of thought into his answers, especially since these are probably the same types of questions he is asked every day. He understands the format for this type of conversation: someone asks a question, I answer; another question is asked, I answer; and so on. The parent in this scenario isn’t inviting responses; rather, she is expecting them. She is looking for information, but is only receiving one and two word responses that hold little or no meaning.
Imperative communication is made up of questions and demands. In general, people use this type of communication approximately 20% of the time in their day to day interactions. Imperative communication is a necessary part of daily life, but it should not make up the majority of our communication experiences.
On the other hand, we use experience sharing communication approximately 80% of the time in our daily interactions with others. The ability to share our experiences with someone is a uniquely human characteristic. No other species has the capability of sharing thoughts and feelings. Sharing experiences allows us to communicate about not only our external world, but our internal world as well. It provides us with the opportunity to talk about our past, present, and future. Not only are we able to share our experiences, but we are able to learn about others’ experiences. We can determine what thought processes they are using, and how they may be feeling about a shared experience.
The percentages listed above for experience sharing and imperative communication relate to the average person. For parents and others who live or work with children with autism spectrum disorders, those percentages tend to be reversed. It is not uncommon for parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder to have 80% of the communication with their child be imperative, and 20% be experience sharing. This generally happens because parents want to talk with their child, they want information, or they want their child to do something; and asking questions or making a demand seems to be the only way to do this. Often, parents feel that if they don’t ask the child a question, they will never know what they are thinking. It’s not just parents who communicate in this way; but other people in the child’s environment, such as school staff, do so as well. What tends to happen for children whose environment is filled with imperative communication is that they learn to talk in this way. Much of what they communicate is related to getting needs met, or sharing the same information over and over. Children in these environments learn that when someone asks a question, they need to answer; but they do not necessarily learn how to think and provide a thoughtful answer. They also tend to learn that many people ask the same types of questions, so that they can give the same response over and over without needing to think about it.
What are some ways that you can begin to change the way you communicate with children on the autism spectrum? Begin slowly, by deciding on a particular time of day that you will practice using experience sharing communication. Try to make comments about the things you are currently doing. If you find that you are having difficulty not asking questions, try just being quiet or talking about yourself. Spend some time listening to snippets of other people’s conversations in a coffee shop or mall, or even while watching TV. Think about what you hear, and how people are communicating with each other. Chances are, they will be using experience sharing communication.
While imperative communication is necessary at times, to make requests and gather information, we need to think about how much we use it. Striving to use experience sharing communication at least 80% of the time will bring about a much richer experience for everyone involved. Helping children with autism spectrum disorders begin sharing experiences, in a meaningful way, works to improve the core deficits of autism and the quality of life.