What is Social Communication?

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Autistic children face challenges daily, and social communication is one of the most difficult to conquer. What is social communication? Challenges in social communication are associated with autism diagnosis. However, each child is unique and is impacted to a different extent. Some children may  start an interaction, while others will prefer their peers initiate the exchange. While autistic children might show an interest in engaging with others they can still have challenges.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that autistic children do not want to interact. The key here is to support them in interacting with their peers, offering tools for adequate communication. 

Social communication is a group of skills that include both verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction and understanding others (Children’s Minnesota) . Many people just seem to have this skill naturally. Autistics often need direct teaching in order to master this skill. 

Why is social communication difficult?

The first thing we have to remember is that many autistic children need support in learning how to communicate. Some of them may not respond when talked to while others require a bit of time to plan an answer.

Eye contact is a major issue. In our society, eye contact is a very important behaviour.  A lot of value is placed on looking ‘someone in the eye’ or showing that you’re paying attention by maintaining eye contact. Many autistic children avoid it altogether, while others find it uncomfortable.

Eye contact used to be considered an essential goal.  However, recent research and an effort to include the voices and experiences of autistic adults has decreased the value and necessity of these types of goals.  Many clinicians are adopting an approach that teaches replacement behaviours that meet the same goals as eye contact. For example, one of the biggest reasons people give eye contact is to convey that they are paying attention and understanding the other person.  Alternative behaviours, such as turning your body to the speaker, nodding, saying words like “I see”, “I know what you mean”, “I get it” all convey the same message and do not require eye contact. 

While a typical child will learn through imitation, an autistic child will likely need explicit teaching. It is important not to give up and consider the child’s point of view. If he/she cannot communicate his/her own wants and needs, frustration can easily build up.

Things to work on in therapy

Social communication represents one of the main therapeutic objectives in many ABA Therapy programs. Depending on the age of the child and his/her developmental level, the therapist will teach the child how to interact with others and interpret their behaviour correctly. With older kids, one might also work on teaching the effect one’s own behaviour has on others.

Therapy will involve teaching the child to recognize and understand social cues. As mentioned, these children do not show these behaviours instinctively and they need to learn how to adjust their behavior to fit each social context. 

Language is a huge part of social communication. Using social situations, the therapist will work on both the expressive and receptive language. Taking into account the potential of the child, they will work not only on verbal communication but also on body language and facial expressions. He/she will also teach the child to adapt his/her tone of voice when possible.

Two girls engaging in social communication, sitting on the ground in a forested area.

It is a fact that autistic children often take things literally, which can lead to frequent misunderstandings. For this reason, when appropriate, therapy will include teaching the child to understand figurative language, including metaphors.

How will therapy help improve social communication?

While the beginning might be slow, over time the child will develop their abilities to interact. They will become more confident, seeking interaction with peers. Improving social interaction skills will remain a primary aim throughout all therapeutic sessions.

As in all ABA programs, each objective will be broken down into manageable steps. Often, the therapist will provide visual support and plenty of opportunities for the child to practice the newly learned skills. Positive reinforcement makes the behaviour more likely to happen again and it has the added benefit of boosting the child’s confidence.

In time, and provided the child’s development allows it, the therapeutic objectives can become more complex. Autistic children can learn to interpret subtle non-verbal cues and also to recognize emotional responses. They can master conflict resolution and pick up the best ways to develop friendship skills. Social Communication therapy can be funded by the Ontario Autism Program.

What about non-verbal children?

Non-verbal children can communicate using various strategies, but they will need help. The therapist can teach them to use gestures or sign language to communicate and introduce augmentative and alternative communication systems.

Some autistic children might never speak. But this does not mean the gate to social communication is shut. They still have plenty of opportunities to communicate with their peers, and it is up to the therapist to find the best solution for a non-verbal child.

Conclusion

While we can improve social communication in therapy, it is also important to educate people on the challenges autistic children face in this area. It is all about accepting differences and meeting these kids on their level, welcoming and honouring any form of communication and/or interaction.

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