What Are Social Communication Difficulties?
Takeaway: ‘Social communication’ means knowing how to read social cues and changing our communication style accordingly. Children with social communication difficulties (SCD) have problems reading body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc., making it harder for them to fit in and connect with others. But a psychologist or speech & language therapist can help them develop these skills.
There’s more to communicating than just using the right words.
We marvel at people who can express themselves eloquently, but communication begins at a much more fundamental level. Even before we open our mouths to say something, we give off nonverbal cues through our facial expressions, eye contact, and body language. And when we do start talking, the way we say things is as important as what we end up saying. Even when others are speaking to us, we’re often looking past the words. For example, a friend saying, ‘That’s awesome!’ can mean different things, depending on how it’s said. The friend could be excited, upset (trying to mask anger or frustration), or even just joking. The words themselves are merely the tip of the iceberg.
‘Social communication’ means knowing how to read social cues and changing our communication style accordingly.
When we think of language and communication, we think of vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. But when you throw people into the mix, the ‘social’ part of communication becomes much more important. This means learning skills like knowing when to speak and when to listen, when to share something and when to keep it to yourself, how to say things without hurting someone’s feelings, how to finding common interests to talk about, and so on. It’s incredible how children usually learn this complex mix of unspoken rules just by socialising and playing with their friends.
Children with social communication difficulties (SCD) haven’t yet learned all the right skills, which makes it harder for them to fit in and connect with people. And this can affect their mental health and self-confidence.
Life is puzzling for children with SCD because they’ll find themselves in trouble for seemingly mysterious reasons. For example, if they haven’t learned to match their communication style with the person they’re speaking with, they’ll talk to teachers as if they’re classmates. And if they can’t read a group’s mood, they’ll crack jokes in the middle of a sombre speech or take light-hearted banter way too seriously. They’ll also have trouble understanding anything that isn’t literal. For example, the phrase ‘I slept like a log’ might confuse them because it’s a figure of speech. (After all, a log of wood isn’t alive in quite the same way we are, and it certainly doesn’t go to sleep as we do.) These sorts of misunderstandings add up, making children with SCD feel different and excluded. They can also affect their performance in school, their relationships outside school, and their general sense of belonging and wellbeing.
Children with SCD often have other differences and challenges, too.
There’s sometimes an overlap between SCD and things like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), language disorders, learning differences, intellectual disability, etc. SCD is most strongly linked to autism, though. Until recently, it was included under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) since one of the main characteristics of children with autism is that they struggle with communication. Because of this, doctors first rule out SCD before diagnosing a child with autism.
So, how are social communication differences diagnosed?
Parents can often pick up early signs of SCD like a delay in learning to speak or not being interested in social interactions. But for a more formal diagnosis, specialists will first do a preliminary screening followed by a more comprehensive assessment. For the screening, they’ll get a general idea of a child’s communication abilities through interviews, questionnaires, and observation. And they’ll also make sure she doesn’t have issues with her hearing because that can interfere with communication. For the comprehensive assessment, specialists look for things like how great an impact her communication issues have on her daily life, and if there are any of the coexisting conditions we described earlier (ADHD, language disorders, etc.). They’ll also try and figure out if there’s something in her environment or how she lives that’s preventing her from learning social communication skills.
If your child needs help with social communication, there are a few things you can do at home.
You’ll first figure out what skills your child needs to improve, and then give her the chance to practise those skills. For example, if you find that she often interrupts conversations abruptly, you can introduce her to the idea of taking turns. Start off by doing it with physical things — like colouring a book together — but taking it in turns to colour different sections. As her patience improves, you could switch to other activities like playing board games where she’ll have to wait for many people to have their turn first. The more she’s exposed to the flow of group interactions, the better she’ll get at socialising. Even things like reading a book can be turned into teaching moments. For example, if you’re reading her a story, you could pause and ask her about what the characters in the book are doing, what this tells us about how they’re feeling, and what they might do next. This way, you’re teaching her to pay attention to people’s behaviour and try to understand their inner world. You could even invent stories together, which is both a fun activity and a chance for her to get inside the heads of the characters you both create.
Sometimes, though, you might feel your child needs more targeted help with her social communication. If so, consider contacting a specialist.
The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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