The only people to whom I respond to that question with anything close to a real answer are my husband and family members. Most everyone else I answer politely “I’m fine and how are you?” even when going to the doctors. The doctor comes in and asks “Hello Molly. How are you?” I’ll always reply ‘I’m fine.…but doctor, my arm is broken and I’m in a lot of pain.”
Pragmatic language starts with ‘hello’ and leads to understanding and responding appropriately to everyday greetings. One needs to learn to respond to the intent of the question. Is it a polite greeting or does the person really want to know about how I feel? Do I address them more formally or can I get away with “Hey, what’s happening Dude?”
I saw a young man on the Autism spectrum at an event in the community the other night who in the past I employed to do some work for me. I caught his eyes first, then said “Hello” but he didn’t respond at all but just looked at me. So I came closer and repeated the greeting and he still didn’t say hello back still looking at me. Finally I asked him if he remembered me and he responded “yes” but nothing else. Awkward. It leaves you feeling unacknowledged and as if you are intruding, not how one would greet your present or past employer!
On the other hand, nothing kills a conversation more than if you ask someone ‘the question’ and they dive into a litany of all their ailments and concerns and go on and on and on and never ask ‘the question’ back!
Those on the spectrum often need help overcoming these awkward moments when they either don’t respond, or respond in the subtle way that doesn’t invite conversation. Giving them instruction and practice can help them master this subtle but difficult skill. Even normally developing elementary and middle school students will often respond to my ‘how are you’ question with “I’m good.” and then silence. It’s awkward. Communication then ends.
I like to use the analogy of throwing a beanbag back and forth between two people to teach this simple but subtle communication starter. Playing catch is very much like a conversation. For it to go smoothly and be fun, both players must participate with their full attention. If someone throws the beanbag and the other person catches it and then puts it in his pocket and goes home, it doesn’t work for both partners in the conversation. In the opposite situation, you’d throw the bean bag and the other person holds you captive with the promise implied that they will throw it back. You politely wait and wait for it to come back and it never does!
Communication starts with this simple back and forth polite acknowledgment of each other. So, as this is my first blog, I bravely say: “Hello World! How are you?” and I hope you respond back!