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What Is Pragmatic Language Delay?

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Did you know that a child can have excellent speech skills with the ability to put many words into long, articulate, grammatically correct sentences, yet still have a social language delay?

Pragmatic language is the use of language in a social setting. Children who have a delay in pragmatic language have difficulty understanding how to use language when more than one person (the child) is involved.

RELATED: Building Language With Sensory Boxes

Since a large portion of our social communication doesn’t involve actual talking, pragmatic language encompasses both verbal and nonverbal rules that dictate social interactions. The social use of language can include the ability to:

  • use language in a variety of ways, such as greeting, requesting, questioning and explaining.

  • change language when the situation dictates it. This includes being able to gauge the interest of a speaker as well as her understanding of a topic, speaking differently to young children than adults, and using an appropriate volume for the situation (indoors/outdoors, etc.).

  • follow established rules of social communication, such as turn-taking in conversation, being able to initiate and maintain a topic, using good nonverbal communication skills such as facial expression and eye contact and standing an appropriate distance away.

Though pragmatic language delays are often associated with autism, a delay can develop independently of a diagnosis of ASD.

Poor pragmatic language skills can have a negative impact on a child’s ability to make friends, connect to others and succeed in school. Because young children, especially, are still developing new social skills, pragmatic language may be stronger in some situations than in others. But in general, if your child has difficulty maintaining a conversation, doesn’t seem to connect to other children, has a limited variety of language, has poor eye contact, or doesn’t participate in pretend play, it’s worth mentioning to your pediatrician.

Though pragmatic language delays are often associated with autism, a delay can develop independently of a diagnosis of ASD. WhereICanBeMe.com (an excellent resource for parents who are concerned about their child’s social language development) cites low percentages in regard to autism:

“While the inability to read social cues is a component of disorders such as Autism and Asperger’s, it is not unique to them. In fact research shows that neurological disorders account for only 5 percent of all dyssemia. Another 10 percent is made up of those who suffered an emotional trauma that derailed their social development. However, a full 85 percent of those with dyssemia are unable to read and respond to nonverbal communication simply because they never learned how.”

Parents who are concerned about a social language delay should consult with a speech and language therapist right away. But if you’re interested in how to help your typically developing child develop good pragmatic language skills, here are some tips:

  • Provide ample time and opportunity for pretend play, where children can practice social speech and role-play social situations. If there are no other kids around for your children to play with, get down on the floor and do some pretending with them.

  • Give your child access to play with peers through playdates, play groups, day care or preschool programs.

  • Greet everyone—the postal carrier, the clerk who checks your groceries, your neighbors. Practice saying hi and bye to everyone (toddlers) and participating in small talk (older children). Encourage children to make their own requests at stores, restaurants and the library, and to ask questions such as what would their friend like for a snack.

  • Play games that require turn-taking. At the infant level, this can be as simple as peekaboo, but, as children get older, try board games that require both taking turns and social interaction or answering questions.

  • Model good conversation skills. Stop what you are doing when your child talks to you, make eye contact and help keep the conversation going by asking questions.

RELATED: What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

While a pragmatic language delay can be difficult for your child, they can learn new social skills with the help of a trained speech and language pathologist. If you think your child might be struggling, contact your pediatrician or local early intervention group right away.

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