There seems to be all of this talk today about social communication. What is it? What does it mean if you don’t have good social communication skills? Is that something like having Autism Spectrum Disorder? Who would I talk to if I thought a loved one had a social communication issue?
Social communication is the area of communication that encompasses social interaction, social cognition, and pragmatic functioning. We will get to what those mean exactly later. Social communication differences can occur in many contexts and are a continuum of behaviors. One could have these issues by themselves and have Social Communication Disorder, or the differences can be seen within the context of another diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. In the case of Autism Spectrum Disorder, a person would have social communication differences along with some degree of restricted or repetitive behavior, whether that be a hyper focus on movement patterns, sensory interests, or particularly strong areas of interest such as Legos, vehicles, etc. Social communication issues can also be seen with other language impairments, developmental delays, attention deficit disorders, and several other diagnoses.
So what is social interaction? This area has to do with how we interact based on gender, culture, age of our communication partner, and more. What is appropriate to the context we are in? Men and women have different interaction styles and they change them based on whether they are speaking with their same gender or the opposite gender. When people do not make the necessary adjustments to fit their audience it is socially awkward. For example, if a man speaks to his buddy using the same words and tone of voice that he would use when speaking with his wife or another woman, it stands out. We also change our communication depending on the age of our partner. We speak in a higher pitched voice and using simpler words if we are playing with a baby or speaking with a young child. We speak in a more natural tone when speaking with our peers and often we speak with more care and respect when speaking with someone who is our elder. There are also cultural differences is interactions that we may observe or follow depending on heritage and ethnicity.
Social cognition focuses on how we think about being social. We make changes in how we interact depending on what we know our communication partner knows. Let’s say you get together with friends for lunch and news is shared while visiting. If you see a friend who wasn’t at lunch, you wouldn’t say, “isn’t that great for Henry?” because you know they didn’t hear the same news. You would “fill them in” and then continue to talk about the subject. You also would not talk on and on about something you know someone has already heard, or you might ask, “Did I tell you about…” We also take into consideration others’ thoughts and feelings and we regulate our own thoughts and feelings when speaking with people. A person would not run up to someone who has just experienced a loss or tragedy in their life and go on and on telling them about how awful their life is because they spilled red wine on the carpet. We recognize that though the red wine is important in our life it does not compare to what is happening with the other person. Another area of social cognition has to do with our ability to take all of the information we want to share and organize it into a cohesive story that is easy for our listener to understand. We have all experienced a story being told that by the end we are so confused that we are not sure who, what, or when it happened.
The final area of social communication is centered around pragmatics. Pragmatics is the verbal and nonverbal quality of our communication. It is using a mix of commenting, requesting, and questioning in our conversations. It is being able to balance turns with our communication partner, not being too quiet, not saying anything, or being overbearing and dominating the entire conversation. Staying on a topic of conversation for an appropriate length of time and smoothly changing topics also falls under pragmatics. We use phrases like, “that reminds me,” or “speaking of,” or we make switches that go so smoothly we don’t even need to let our partner know; they can follow without cues. I tell my patients that it is like riding in a car or hiking in the woods. You need to stay close enough to your buddy that you don’t end up on different streets or paths and then you are both lost. Using eye contact, showing facial expression (emotions), and use of gestures (talking with your hands) are also part of pragmatics. We all use a liberal amount of these skills to enhance our communication to connect with the person to whom we are speaking.
My explanations and examples above are focused in the adult world and there certainly are adults who struggle with differences in these areas. Children, however, also can show differences in their social communication skills. These differences can even be seen in many cases even in infants, less than a year. Their differences are just embedded in the social opportunities they encounter versus those we have as adults. It is the baby who connects with their family members and caregivers, or shows differences in how they connect. It is the school-aged child who struggles to make friends because they only want to talk about planes and their peers don’t want to listen about different engine types the entire lunch period. These are just a few examples of the struggles faced by children with social communication impairments; there are many.
So what if you are concerned with you or a loved one having social communication impairments? First of all, talk with your physician and then get connected with a speech pathologist that can observe and assess behaviors in communication skills and determine what might be going on and how to intervene to make life easier. Speech pathologists work with adults and kids to develop new social skills, recognize social situations, and learn to use the skills they have learned in new contexts. People with these struggles are near and dear to my heart. Life is hard enough; not being able to develop friendships and connections makes it all that much harder. Think about how different, in a very small way, your day would be if it didn’t occur to you to even smile and greet someone or if they didn’t see the reason to respond with a smile and “hello” back.
Questions and or comments regarding this week’s health column please contact Amy Yockey, MS, CCC/SLP at Marcus Daly Rehabilitation Center and Services, 1200 Westwood Drive, Hamilton, MT 59840. Working together to build a healthier community!