Social pragmatics are the structure and non-verbal behaviors that occur in a conversation. Is there eye contact? Are the individual’s facial expressions varied and appropriate to the situation? Is the individual the appropriate distance from another person for both of their comfort? What is the back and forth timing or flow of the conversation? Does the person initiate conversation? Do they respond to conversation and what is typical of their responses? How many turns are observed during conversation? Do they have transitions when changing topics? Do they assume the other person knows the topic? Are their sentence constructions vague or specific? These questions are some of the pieces of information gained through an assessment and are used to plan therapy.
The question I am asked the most about social pragmatics by parents is, “do I offer any social groups for children?” I am not a proponent of social groups for young children as I have not observed or experienced good outcomes. At young ages (4 – 10 years old) I believe children do better learning social skills from one-on-one play-dates and later, small groups with normally developing peers as the model. In social groups, most of the children have cognitive – communicative and social delays and they are not the best models as they are struggling themselves with social skills. In late middle school (8th grade) through college age, social skills groups for socially awkward teens and adults are an excellent choice. These groups promote bonding of the participants and the participants typically have enough self-awareness and motivation to benefit from the group.
It has been my experience that one of the corner stones of good pragmatics is turn-taking skills. This includes non-verbal signals such as signaling the other person that it is their turn through body gestures, leaning in, head nods, and verbal prompting with comments or questions.
How do we take turns during conversations? Often we take turns by asking a question, making a comment and waiting with anticipation for the other person to respond or we give a compliment. It is important to know the rules during a conversation. We are expected generally to stay on topic. As we change topics, a transition to another topic is expected. Often, individuals with social awkwardness and/or social pragmatic issues can initiate briefly because that skill has been practiced. However, they have difficulty maintaining the conversation because it may move too quickly for them or they provide short responses back to the other person, which acts as a conversation-stopper. The difference between “no” and “no, what do you think?” are large when we think of engaging the other person.
To efficiently improve pragmatic skills the individual has to have good self-awareness and be able to benefit from feedback. This becomes a more reachable goal if foundation cognitive skills have previously been moved to their potential. Therefore, pragmatic communication goals are often goals we work on toward the end of therapy addressing cognitive skills of attention, memory, executive function, problem solving and language competency before social abilities.
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