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How to Recognize a Social Language Deficit in Children and Help Them Overcome It

Children with social and pragmatic deficits often have difficulty making friends and generally succeeding in social situations. Find out how to recognize a deficit in social language skills and how targeted help can be effective for your child.


Social language - what is it? How is it defined? Why do some children easily develop social skills and a comfort-level with making new friends, while others simply struggle? One does not need to be a professional to know when a social language deficit is present. For a parent, these issues are not measured with evaluations, standardized tests, or report cards. They are measured in cancelled play dates and invitations to social events that never arrive.

While teachers, therapists, and physicians concern themselves with why a child may need instruction in this area, parents just know there's a problem - and that they need! They are well aware that their child is having social-language problems, and it is distressing to their child, as well as the entire family.


Assessing a Deficit

child on outside of playground looking in; kids separated by a fenceDoes your child have difficulty with nonverbal aspects of social language? Does he struggle to make or sustain eye contact? Is he often off-topic during conversations? Are his questions and comments often unrelated to what is being discussed? Does he miss social cues? Are his emotional interpretations of situations sometimes inappropriate?

Whether or not a child has been diagnosed with or identified as having an autistic-spectrum disorder, the truth is that specific deficits in social language skills can be devastating to a child's ability to communicate effectively and develop peer relationships, even make him a more likely target for bullying. Speaking with your child's teacher and the school's speech-language pathologist can help you determine if your child is experiencing social and pragmatic skill difficulties at school. Because they see your child function in both formal (classroom) and informal (playground) settings, their insights are particularly valuable.

It's important for adults to absorb that just because we may see a social exchange clearly, the same does not necessarily hold true for their child.


Concrete Guidance is Best

In either group or individual sessions, children can receive specific instruction to raise their awareness about what's considered socially appropriate behavior. They can also be taught discreet and specific strategies that can be directly applied in social situations.

A social language group, in addition to being a lot of fun, is a comfortable environment in which children are provided opportunities to practice these developing skills. While participating in individual or group social-pragmatic therapy, children can take skills they acquire and apply them in their daily life with the help and guidance of parents, relatives, friends, and teachers.

Real life communicative breakdowns can be as simple as negotiating the selection of a play activity when two children disagree. By specifically instructing your child about how to appropriately request an activity ("Can we play your game now if we play my game later?"), problematic situations can sometimes be avoided. Being taught exactly what words to use can help children from continually misreading a situation and help them independently resolve conflicts. Sometimes just explaining to your child that turn-taking is the way children play fairly may avoid frustration when she doesn't get her way. 

Offer specific cues to help a child improve a specific skill, such as staying on topic ("Weren't we talking about baseball?") or using appropriate non-verbal skills ("Can you look at my eyes when we speak - it really helps me understand what you have to say"). It would be neither typical nor appropriate to receive such cues or assistance from an unfamiliar communicative partner such as a store clerk or a local librarian, for example.

Parents can also work on identifying appropriate labels for emotions and how to share them at the time of a disagreement. A statement such as, "I'm not happy right now; what you said hurt my feelings" is a more positive (and likely successful) strategy than suppressing feelings, or even striking out in a more inappropriate way. Modeling this behavior in your family interactions is worthwhile, but some children may require specific instructions and verbal directives in order to understand and effectively use such strategies.


Finding Social Success

Navigating social situations is difficult enough for a typically-developing child. When children cannot easily attend to the listening and speaking responsibilities of conversations, they are much more likely to struggle achieving academic success in school. Simple tasks like answering a question in class or placing a phone call to a friend can become major hurdles.

Misusing skills such as vocal intonation, eye contact, or staying on topic can cause others to misinterpret what a child with pragmatic language deficits says or means. Additionally, your child may be unable to clarify his messages and advocate for himself when misunderstood.

Understanding that your voice should sound different when seeking information about a product in a store, for instance, is important. Individuals who don't grasp this are likely to get a response they might not like. (Moreover, they might never understand why these ineffective interactions persist.) A child's safety might even be at stake - how can one seek directions when lost, say, or assistance if in need of real help?

Spontaneous or non-scripted social communication (such as interacting with a clerk) are encounters that can be rehearsed prior to an anticipated event. Practicing similar interactions on the phone can also be a helpful way to improve your child's social greeting skills as well as her ability to ask appropriate questions. And seek the assistance of extended family or people in the community who know your family well to role play to further help your child with interpersonal skills.


Getting Help

While you may know your child has lots to offer to a particular friendship or conversation, it's distressing when others aren't really getting to know your child. A social-pragmatic skill deficit can preclude others from getting to know the unique and interesting individual parents know their child to be.

If your child or a relative is dealing with this issue, don't settle for less than their true potential. "Oh well, that's just the way he is" should not be the final verdict.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) can put you in contact with a credentialed speech-language pathologist who can provide assistance with a variety of communication-based deficits and learning issues. They can also help parents locate reliable and clinically sound information, rather than sifting through products and services that might not be right for your child.


Top Tips from Tim

  • Discuss - and rehearse - expected social situations before they occur.
  • Demonstrate and discuss appropriate nonverbal language use such as eye contact, personal space, and "whole-body listening" postures.
  • Point out appropriate social language usage when you see it.
  • Encourage participation in activities that provide direct opportunities for quality non-scripted and spontaneous social interaction.
  • Discuss your concerns with other appropriate school personnel such as a speech-language pathologist or psychologist.
  • Discuss difficulties with your child using kind, supportive, and direct language.
  • Use trial social situations to practice newly acquired skills in safe environments in the presence of and under the direct supervision of parents or caregivers.
  • Don't take social language difficulties any more seriously than the situations require; try to have fun and enjoy the humor in awkward situations as they occur.


Tim Ayrovainen is a speech-language pathologist in private practice, serving clients in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, NY. He provides therapy for social-pragmatic language as well as other areas of speech-language pathology.


Also see: A Parents' Guide to Special Needs

Special Needs Health Professionals in the New York Metro Area

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