Social Language Disorders

Social language disorders describes a range of difficulties with communicating with others and following social rules such as making eye contact, taking turns in conversations, and staying on a topic when speaking to others, among other things.  Social communication difficulties can be one aspect of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but can also exist without that diagnosis.  Social communication disorders can also include conflict management, problem solving, and understanding how to make and maintain friendships. 

What is Social Communication/Pragmatic Language?

Pragmatic Language is the social use of language and the underlying social “rules” that individuals follow when communicating. An individual may have strong vocabulary knowledge and generate grammatical sentences, but still struggle to effectively communicate with those around him or her due to difficulties with social language.

There are several components that make up Pragmatics. First is the understanding of different uses or purposes for language. For example, an individual should be able to use language to greet others, make requests, comment on their environment, question, and negate. Pragmatics also looks at how an individual can change his or her language based on their environment or listener. A child must learn that how he or she speaks and acts on the playground will be very different from in the classroom. Lastly, Pragmatics describes how an individual follows general “rules” of speaking and holding a conversation. This includes, knowing how to take turns speaking in a conversation, being able to maintain a certain topic, and using appropriate nonverbal language when conversing.

Causes of Pragmatic Delays in Children

The true cause of pragmatic language delays is still unknown. Research has suggested that it may be a neurodevelopmental disorder. Pragmatic delays are also associated with other diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, nonverbal learning disorder, and anxiety.

Symptoms Associated with Pragmatic Language Delays

  • Poor eye contact
  • Difficulty initiating and ending conversations appropriately
  • Difficulty coping with transitions or changes in routine
  • Struggling with making and maintaining friendships
  • Difficulty interpreting facial expressions, body language, or nonverbal cues
  • Difficulty taking turns in conversation or in play
  • Concrete thinking
  • Struggling with problem solving in social situations

Assessing Pragmatic Language Delays

The speech language pathologist (SLP) will complete formal and informal language assessments. The assessment will include looking at how the individual is able to use language for different purposes (e.g., greeting, requesting, asking questions, responding to questions, etc.). It will also look at how he or she understands nonverbal language cues and how he or she can problem solve social situations. Typically, the SLP will ask the parents to complete a questionnaire to determine how the individual uses language in different environments and what practical difficulties he or she has in the community.

Treating Pragmatic Language Delays

Treatment will use a variety of activities to target the specific social language skills that are impaired. Therapy tasks for young children may be based on games and other play activities; tasks for older children may be related to more social situations. The SLP may explicitly teach social communication rules that the child has not picked up on his or her own. The SLP will educate parents about the child’s problems and ways to work on language at home. It is very important to practice social language skills in different environments and with different people. Therapy may also be done in small groups to allow functional practice of the social communication skills in a therapeutic setting.