What are social communication disorders?

Children with social communication disorders have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal language for social purposes.  Social interactions, social understanding, and pragmatics are all areas in which they struggle with.  Pragmatics refers to their ability to change their language to suit different social contexts.  Children with this disorder do not have difficulties in understanding grammar or word structures.  Rather their difficulties lie in their ability to use language in social situations; examples include: responding to others, taking turns, staying on topic, using gestures, making and keeping friends, asking relevant questions or responding with related ideas during conversations, and talking about emotions and feelings.  Some children with a social communication disorder may also have trouble understanding facial expressions, riddles, or sarcasm.  Some also may also not understand how to properly greet people.

Social communication disorders affect all different types of verbal and nonverbal communication, be it spoken, written, gesture, or sign language.

The diagnostic category of social communication disorders include:

  • Language disorder

  • Speech sound disorder

  • Child-onset fluency disorder (stuttering)

  • Social (pragmatic) communication disorder

  • Expressive language disorder

What to look for?

If you believe your child has a proper concept of communication and linguistic skills but seems to have difficulty applying those skills in social situations, he or she may have a social communication disorder.

Children with a social communication disorder are typically delayed in reaching language milestones and appear to be disinterested in social interactions.  It is very rare for a child with a social communication disorder to initiate social interaction with others.  Their social interactions are typically very minimal and often viewed as awkward.

Some children with a social communication disorder lag behind in developing reading and writing skills and reading comprehension. In addition, some may develop behavioral issues or act out due to frustration over their lack of social communication skills.

What is the treatment?

The most effective treatment for social communication disorders is early intervention, particularly during your child’s toddler and preschool years.  In fact, the most intensive period of speech and language development occurs in a child’s first three years of life.  During this time, your child’s brain is able to absorb language.  It is important for parents to familiarize themselves with developmental milestones in order to seek treatment for their child at the onset of a delay.

Treatment for social communication disorders typically includes speech therapy, social skills training, and/or behavior therapy.  Your child’s therapist may also recommend environmental modifications as part of your child’s treatment.

With proper treatment, you and your child’s therapist can help improve your child’s communication skills and lead a more fulfilling life.


Experts in the field have not been able to pinpoint what causes a child to develop a social communication disorder.  Some believe that the disorder is somehow related to weak executive functioning skills.  Here are some factors that are known to put children at a higher risk:

  • Hearing loss

  • Neurological disorders

  • Brain injury

  • Physical impairments such as cleft lip or palate

  • Emotional or psychiatric disorders

  • Developmental disorders 

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