Social-Pragmatic Skills and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Social-Pragmatic skills help individuals engage in social interaction with others. Many of us grasped the unwritten rules that govern our behavior in the social environment early on in our lives. However, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulties learning these rules. In fact, social-pragmatics is often considered a core challenge for these children. The “hidden” social expectations can make social interaction a confusing experience. Therefore, many professionals and parents may want to help children with ASD develop a variety of skills that fall within the social-pragmatic realm. Nonetheless, before we start, we need to first sort out important conversational skills and find ways to assess children’s performance.

Social-Pragmatic skills involve not only one’s ability to communicate intent, but also knowledge of discourse management, register variation, presupposition, and other social skills. Discourse Management involves managing the conversation to keep it flowing and effective. Conversation partners need to agree on turn allocation, which involves identifying turn-taking opportunities and limiting one’s talking to one’s turn. They stay on the topic unless there is a signal by a communication partner that he/she is going to change the topic. Knowledge of topic maintenance includes knowing how to smoothly switch to a new topic. When conversation breakdown occurs, one needs to recognize it and use subsequent repair strategies such as repeat, rephrase, or adding information to aid communication. Register variation includes politeness/social role recognition, as people change their word choices, sentence forms, vocal tone and gestures/body posture to adjust to social roles in various discourse patterns. Presupposition, or perspective-taking,involves making assumptions about what other people know. People learn to understand everyone has different thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and take this into account during the conversation. Paralinguistics refers to the use of prosody, gaze, gestures, and physical proximity to show interest in the interaction, convey different layers of meanings and monitor the nonverbal communication of the partner. Social behaviors involve use of facial expressions, conventional gestures, and social actions that are expected in one’s culture, such as dressing appropriately for an occasion, offering to share something, assisting someone who needs help, patiently waiting for a turn in a game, etc.

Children with ASD may be able to fluently express their intention, but they often face difficulties in their social interaction with lack of proficiency of more than one skill listed above.

Assessing pragmatic skills can be a challenge since conversations are dynamic, and there is no easy way to measure one’s performance via standard tests. Formal assessment which involves static, often pictured situations can be used to establish a starting point, but information collected through observation, interview, and check lists helps us to detect if the individual lacks the knowledge to manage such conversations or is merely experiencing a performance issue. If needed, specific situations can be created to probe particular skills. Information from more than one source is necessary to establish goals and priorities for intervention.

Several key components need to be considered as we develop an individualized treatment program for children with ASD. These include the child’s knowledge about social communication, his/her ability to apply social knowledge in various situations, the cognitive/emotional cost to the child, the need to find right strategies to specific challenges, the co-occurring elements in the planning/implementation stages of social interaction, plans to generalize learned skills, self-monitoring skills that promote independence and flexibility, etc. Interventionists should also consider what skills are easiest/most important to teach, which skills can be paired together, and which skills will make the biggest impact in terms of improving social interaction. Many tools and programs have been developed for improving social interaction in this population. For example, social groups and social stories help children with ASD to experience different social roles and social situations, expand their knowledge of social skills, give them examples of strategies they can use, and offer them opportunities to practice social-pragmatic skills in a low-stress environment. While the SLP may lead intervention, family members and school teachers can also provide additional learning opportunities throughout the day to help children monitor their newly learned skills.


Information taken from:


Chloe Chenjie Gu, MA., Speech-Language Pathology Intern

Kristina Elliott, MA, CCC-SLP


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