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Understanding Social Communication

One aspect of speech language therapy that not everyone may be familiar with is the social use of language, also known as pragmatics. Beyond knowing vocabulary, grammar, etc., an important part of language is knowing how to use it socially.

According to ASHA.org, there are three main components of using language socially;

  1. Using language for different reasons, including greeting/saying goodbye, asking for help, commenting, asking and answering questions, sharing emotions, etc.
  2. Changing language for the listener or the situation, such as speaking differently to a teacher than to a classmate, using a different volume when playing in a park versus in a quiet restaurant, or speaking differently to a family member or close friend than an acquaintance.
  3. Following rules for conversations and storytelling. Even if we don’t realize it, we are always following unspoken rules during social interactions that influence aspects of communication such as how to get someone’s attention, how we initiate and exit conversations, and even how close to stand to someone during a conversation.

Speech therapy addressing social communication should incorporate the client’s goals, the family’s goals, and the client’s current level of communication, and should be functional for everyday life. It can include using and understanding a variety of verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and may change depending on the client’s age, interests, and current language. For example, for younger children, social skills may focus on using language for a variety of reasons (asking for help, expressing a variety of emotions, greeting/saying goodbye, commenting, etc.) while older children may work on targets like how to enter and exit conversations, understanding how to read other people’s facial expressions to know when they don’t understand you, etc.

While addressing social skills, however, it is important to recognize that not everyone communicates the same way. SLPs should be mindful of individual differences and take into account the variety of interaction styles and preferences of individuals to empower each client to advocate for themselves, engage with others in a way that is comfortable and meaningful, and repair communication breakdowns. Social skills therapy will not look the same for everyone, and it is important to honor individual preferences and ways of communicating. Clients may be challenged to go outside of their comfort zone, but only when equipped with the support and knowledge to do so! Therapy should include direct instruction of social norms, social rules, etc. Often, individuals who have difficulty with the social use of language are not aware of the unspoken “rules” surrounding communication. Overall, the goal of social skills therapy is to empower the client with knowing strategies to communicate effectively in a way that is comfortable for them.