Someone with social communication disorder struggles to properly utilize verbal and nonverbal communication in social situations. It is an inability to properly understand or engage with social situations in an appropriate or “typical” manner.
Human beings have many things that separate us from other species, skill sets that have allowed us to achieve global domination, but the ability to effectively communicate ranks high on that list. From the time we are children into our final years, communicating allows us to express our needs, to share ideas, to tell stories and forge relationships.
However, communicating goes beyond being able to construct a sentence or properly utilize vocabulary to express meaning; there are certain communication strategies that must be employed in social settings to gain trust and be an “effective” communicator. People who struggle to engage socially, for a variety of reasons, may be struggling with a new disorder that has only been explored by medical and psychological professionals—social communication disorder.
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What is Social Communication Disorder?
As briefly outlined above, someone with social communication disorder struggles to properly utilize verbal and nonverbal communication in social situations. It is an inability to properly understand or engage with social situations in an appropriate or “typical” manner. Often seen in children and adolescents, this disorder does not affect one’s ability to master the use of language, as in the technical construction of thoughts and sentences, but rather affects one’s ability to properly “read” and react to a social situation.
The general areas in which young people with Social Communication Disorder (SCD) suffer include the social rules of conversation, the socially accepted standards for storytelling, and the flexibility of language depending on context or audience.
Put more simply, children with SCD are unable to clock and remember the social cues that many other children develop through natural engagement and watching/mimicking others. When a child is unable to apply this social savvy during their interactions, it can make it difficult for them to make friends or be accepted in a social setting.
The symptoms and manifestations of SCD may vary, and due to its somewhat recent appearance on the diagnostic scene, some experts believe that many children have been incorrectly diagnosed in recent decades, whether it is with autism spectrum disorder or some other cognitive developmental disorder.
Causes of Social Communication Disorder
The exact cause of SCD remains something of a mystery, but given its symptoms and the areas of behavior that are affects, it is generally lumped in with other neurodevelopmental disorders. Some early research has linked it to the information processing centers of the right hemisphere, which may suggest that the breakdown in communication comprehension or proper interpretation is because the verbal and visual information must be processed simultaneously. A failure in this processing mechanism could explain the apparent inability to properly assess and behave within a given situation involving both visual and verbal cues (i.e., a conversation).
Symptoms of Social Communication Disorder
There is a wide range of symptoms associated with social communication disorder, some of which are considered foundational for a diagnosis. Since many of these symptoms are present in other disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, speaking with your doctor about the appearance of any of the following symptoms is a wise choice. These symptoms almost always appear in the early developmental period (between the ages of 3-6, once social skills begin to develop).
- Challenges with storytelling norms, namely taking turns and actively listening; may not respect others while they are communicating their thoughts.
- Struggles with starting conversations or maintaining them with any natural ease.
- Slight to moderate lagging behind in language milestones, although not severe. Their lack of progress may even appear to come from disinterest, rather than inability.
- Little or no interest in social interactions; in some cases, there is a decisive dislike of being around others and being forced to communicate or socially engage.
- Challenges with recognizing communication contexts, both in terms of place and people; speaking to peers is different than speaking to a parent, while your frequency and volume of communication may be different on a school bus than in a quiet auditorium.
- Difficulties with expressing thoughts to share information and ideas, or to interact on simpler scales, such as greeting and saying goodbye.
- Difficulties comprehending non-concrete language, i.e., understanding sarcasm/humor, abstract concepts, making inferences between events and ideas.
How is social communication disorder diagnosed?
Like so many neurodevelopmental disorders, Social Communication Disorder is best diagnosed through observation and testing to analyze your child’s social skills in a variety of settings, and also to rule out other possible diagnoses. As mentioned earlier, some of the symptoms of SCD overlap with other disorders, including Autistic Spectrum Disorder, so that diagnosis must also be considered or eliminated.
When a child doesn’t display the physical manifestations of ASD, such as repetitive behavior or obsessive interests, the emotional detachment and social struggles may still align with SCD.
If you are a parent with a child displaying some of the above symptoms, one of the easiest steps to take is to contact a speech therapist, who will be able to assess your child in a variety of ways, or organize situations in which your child can be observed. If a therapist has a chance to observe the children at home and in the classroom, interview parents and any other teachers/guardians, and conduct a few simple tests with the child, the therapist should be able to form a good picture of your child’s developmental speed and level.
There are a number of state- and government-funded organizations that can help to organize this type of testing, particularly in young children under the age of 4. That being said, this is still a relatively new diagnosis, and can also be closely tied to other conditions. In other words, Social Communication Disorder can co-occur in the presence of conditions such as dementia, right-hemisphere damage, ADHD, written language disorders, intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities. Due to how closely it may be tied to other conditions, it is important to seek professional medical advice for an accurate diagnosis and management plan.
Can social communication disorder be treated?
Developmental disorders are unique in that there are many different strategies that can improve the situation, but there is no clear road map or guarantee for any child. Treatment and management often consist of trial and error, yet there are some foundational techniques and tips that can help along the way.
Therapy – One-on-one support from a speech therapist can help your child improve social skills in myriad ways. In a closed, controlled environment, practicing pattern recognition, conversation order, and role-playing can show a marked increased in communication skills.
Knowledgeable Educators – Ensure that all teachers and instructors are aware of the diagnosis of SCD. Additional worksheets or alternative learning materials can be easily be prepared or arranged ahead of time based on a 504 plan.
At-Home Support – Working with your child at home can be a way of consistently improving their communication and social skills. When you are reading books, talking about different subjects, or watching something on a television/tablet, engage your child with simple questions about different characters, their intentions, and the action on the page. By becoming familiar with the natural flow of conversation and social engagement, they can begin to mirror this in their own behavior.
Increased Expertise – Educating yourself on the wide range of symptoms and manifestations of this disorder will make you a better caregiver and better able to manage various behaviors. Talking with your doctor about your specific case and seeking out specialized services related to SCD are great options to feel prepared and well-educated about this condition.