Making “small talk” or having light and friendly conversation with others, helps a young person on the autism spectrum make friends, develop a positive reputation, and find out about others. It is a way to acknowledge other people and show interest in them. It also makes the young person on the autism spectrum feel effective and valued in return. These are all important elements for being successful in adulthood, in relationships and at work.
Engaging in small talk happens to be a skill that many young people with autism (and also sometimes people without autism!) struggle with. Since small talk is usually appropriate anywhere you are interacting with others and may even be expected, for example in the workplace with customers, it is important to become more skilled and comfortable doing it. Young people on the autism spectrum can improve their ability to make small talk, and increase their comfort level, with practice. The following are important points to discuss, so that the practice goes well!
First, know that the purpose of “small talk” is to make people feel comfortable and accepted. What you actually talk about is usually quite unimportant! In other words, with small talk you don’t need to tell someone something, you are talking to them simply to show interest, to make a connection, and to make that person feel comfortable around you.
Since the words themselves are not that important, and you are hoping to make a positive connection with another person, your body language is very important. Start by greeting the other person. Make sure that you make some eye contact and that your face looks friendly and approachable. Are you truly smiling and looking friendly? Some people (including some people not on the autism spectrum!) are not “easy smilers” and have to make a little more effort to look friendly to others. Take a selfie and rate your appearance on a scale of 0-4, with 0 being “not at all friendly”, 2 being “neutral”, and 4 being “very friendly”. Ask a trusted person to be totally honest with you about your appearance. Where do they rank how friendly and approachable your face looks? If your appearance ranks less than a “3”, you may be a person who needs to remember to smile around others more, and especially when you are having small talk with them.
Keep in mind that small talk is:
general (not narrow, specific, or detailed),
“light” (not “heavy” or deep, for example "serious illness", "crime", "disasters", etc,)
shared (something the other person experiences and can relate to),
not personal or private (for example, family problems, financial issues, your worries/concerns, yours or another person's love life, someone’s appearance, etc),
quick or brief (under 5 minutes),
not intense (avoid: politics, religion, how much you or others get paid, any controversial topic that you or others feel very strongly about, and your intense interests).
Small talk is also shared: it must go back and forth between the speakers at least a few times (if you are doing all the talking, or only say something in reply without asking a question back, then it is not “back and forth”).
Some good small talk topics are:
the weather (this is probably the best and most common small talk topic, it can be used anywhere with everyone),
mentioning hobbies/what people do in their free time,
a high profile sports event that others are talking about (for example, the Super Bowl),
What is going on around you (“It’s really busy here today”, “I have never seen it so crowded”, “I wonder where everyone is going?”, “The lunch is great today”).
Helpful hint: Be prepared ahead of time with some things to say! You can be sure that on Monday people will ask about what you did on the weekend, and on Friday they will ask what you plan to do on the upcoming weekend. People often talk about the weather, so notice what’s happening outside and what is in the forecast so that you can talk about it, too. Vacations are also a popular topic, so prepare in your mind some things you can say about recent or planned vacations. You might even write some things down so you are comfortable to ask questions or answer them on any of these (or other) topics.
To make the conversation go back and forth, when you make a comment or answer their questions, then send it back to them by asking them a question. Listen carefully to what they say so that you can answer and ask something appropriate.
Practice everywhere with a variety of people. You can make small talk with the cashier when you are making a purchase (“weather” is a perfect topic to choose for this), with the pharmacist when picking up a prescription, at the vet with your dog, with family members, with the person behind the desk at a hotel, etc. Practicing often will make you more comfortable doing it. Remember, when you practice start with a greeting ("hello", "how's it going", etc), make eye contact, have a friendly, smiling face, and ask questions to keep it going back and forth a few times.
Remember that when you are at work, you are getting paid to work. Make sure that you are allowed to chat, and that you are having small talk with the right people at the right time, for example on your break with a coworker or while helping a customer. Small talk should not interfere with your work or the work of others, and should be fairly brief. If the other person continues to talk after the chat goes back and forth a few times, you may have to excuse yourself with, “I enjoyed talking to you but I have to get back to work now. I look forward to talking to you again soon!”