Pragmatic Language: Skills to Develop Fluid and Functional Communication

Pragmatic language refers to the social language skills that we use in our daily interactions with others. This includes what we say, how we say it, our non-verbal communication (eye contact, facial expressions, body language, etc.) and how appropriate our interactions are in a given situation.

Initiating: This means to use communication ( verbal, nonverbal) to start something that is not routine. This could be asking for help, seeking new information, entering a conversation, joining a group. Although unconventional behaviors can be a way of initiating communication, it is therefore important to teach the student different ways to initiate communication. Example: The child throws himself on the floor and tantrums and then is led to a swing to assist him in calming down.  We should teach the child how to request the swing in a more conventional way.

Accessing Partner’s Attention: Before we begin to talk we get our partner’s attention in some way. There are children with ASD that have difficulty with this. If a student uses an Augmentative Communication device and does not call attention the listener may not hear it or know that the person is trying to communicate a message. This is an important skill that we need to make sure we teach the students whether it is with a switch or words that the child can use.

Perseverance: If our message is not understood we change it in some way. We may say it louder, or change the wording or use gestures or visuals to get it across. Some students with ASD may have difficulty with this and send a message but if it is not understood not change it or persevere to make sure the listener understands. The child may then get angry because you have not understood.

Topic Maintenance: During a conversation individuals take turns sharing their thoughts and opinions about a topic. It is important to keep on a topic so that the back and forth of the conversation can happen and people will know what you are talking about. Think about it as a tennis match in which you are volleying back and forth if someone then threw a football the tennis player would not know what to do. This is a skill that is difficult for students with ASD as it is part of their difficulty with ‘theory of mind’. They may be conversing and thinking that you will know why in your discussion about the upcoming snowstorm they begin to give you facts about the Titanic. ( snow made them think of ice, which then made them think of their favorite topic the Titanic).

Communication Repair:  When we are conversing and realize that the person we are speaking to does not understand us we make changes to ‘repair’ the conversation. We may talk louder, rephrase what we are saying, give additional information or reintroduce the topic. Because of their difficulty with theory of mind people with ASD have difficulty with communication repair they may not realize that there is a breakdown thinking that of course, you know what they are talking about. Some students may become very frustrated and give up. This is a big difference between people with ASD and other communication difficulties. For example, a person with a language learning problem in seeing that they are not understood might gesture or draw their message to help the listener knowing that they have been misunderstood.

Perspective Taking: Perspective taking skills are rooted in a cognitive skill called, “Theory of Mind.” A formal definition of the Theory of Mind is, “an understanding of other people’s mental states” (their thoughts, feelings, desires, motivations, intentions). People use this information to make sense of other people’s behavior, predict what people may do or say next, and to think about one’s own social behavior and adjust it accordingly. Theory of Mind deficits may result in difficulties with: being sensitive to other people’s feelings, taking into account background knowledge, reading the listener’s interest level in conversation, detecting a speaker’s hidden meaning, anticipating what others think of one’s own social behaviors, and understanding “unwritten” social rules.

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