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Social communication and autism

Social communication refers to how people understand and use language in social situations to develop relationships. When a child has a social communication difficulty he or she might struggle to understand other peoples’ behaviour and interact appropriately.

Features of a social communication difficulty in children may include:

  • poor use and understanding of non-verbal communication e.g. eye contact, facial expression
  • poor understanding of social rules e.g. turn-taking
  • preferring to talk about specific topics
  • difficulty seeing other peoples’ point of view
  • difficulty understanding and explaining emotions
  • difficulty expressing empathy
  • preferring being alone, and disliking social interaction
  • difficulty developing friendships with peers
  • difficulty cooperating with adult-led tasks, preferring to follow own agenda
  • appearing rude
  • difficulty understanding non-literal language e.g. the metaphor ‘you’re on fire!’

A social communication difficulty can occur on its own. It can also occur as part of another condition (e.g. developmental language disorder - DLD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - ADHD). However it is most often associated with autism.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition. A key feature of autism is difficulty with social communication and interaction, which occur alongside restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests for example:

  • difficulty coping with change
  • rigid routines
  • restricted range of interests
  • very focused and intense interest in a particular topic e.g. dinosaurs
  • differences in sensory processing
  • repetitive body movements.

For a diagnosis of autism it is necessary to have significant difficulties in the areas above that impact on well-being and ability to function. Each child with autism will have a unique profile of strengths and challenges. Differences in social and flexible behaviour can sometimes be subtle with little impact or cause for concern initially. However the challenges can grow and become more obvious as the child grows older and social demands increase.

Speech and language therapists are uniquely qualified to assess social communication and interaction skills. This may include taking parent reports, observing conversational skills, and using standardised language assessments. They can also advise on how to support a child in developing social communication skills. Take a look at the links on the useful links section for some ideas of general strategies to support a child with social communication difficulties.

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