Social Communication Disorder Basics

Children with social communication disorder have difficulty using language in social situations because of problems with what's called pragmatics — how meaning is created and interpreted in verbal and nonverbal interactions. In this guide you'll learn how social communication disorder affects children, how it is diagnosed and how it's treated.

Social Communication Disorder: What Is It?

Social communication disorder (SCD) is characterized primarily by impairment in what is called pragmatics—the area of linguistics that has to do with how meaning is created and interpreted in verbal and nonverbal interactions. Children with this disorder are not impaired in understanding word structure or grammar, or in general cognitive abilities. They primarily have difficulty using language in social situations, such as greetings, sharing information, changing speech to suit different social contexts, understanding things that are implied but not explicitly stated, and functioning in conversation and storytelling. SCD is a newly defined disorder. Children who had these symptoms in the past have been lumped into the category of what was called pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), a type of autism spectrum disorder, leading to inconsistent treatment and services. Children with autism spectrum disorder may have pragmatic communication problems, but they also have a host of other symptoms directly related to deficits in social interactions and behavior.

Social Communication Disorder: What to Look For

If a child has a firm grasp of many communication and linguistic skills, but seems to have a hard time applying them in the context of certain social situations, it’s possible that she may have SCD. A delay in reaching language milestones and low interest in social interactions are signs of SCD. If a child rarely initiates social interaction with others, or responds very minimally or abnormally when social overtures are made toward her, it could be a sign of the disorder. This disorder can impair a child’s ability to comprehend—and display comprehension of—concepts such as narratives, conversations, and lengthier expositions, and to respond appropriately to different social situations. The problems associated with SCD are distinct from more general deficits associated with disturbances in cognitive ability. SCD affects all different types of verbal and nonverbal communication: spoken, written, gesture, and even sign language.

Social Communication Disorder: Risk Factors

A child is at higher risk for social communication disorder if there is a family history of autism spectrum disorder, communication disorders, or specific learning disorder.

Social Communication Disorder: Diagnosis

For a child to be diagnosed with social communication disorder, the symptoms of the disorder must be present in early childhood—though they may not fully manifest until speech, language, and communication demands start to exceed her pragmatic skills. Autism spectrum disorder must be ruled out for a SCD diagnosis.

Because the symptoms described in SCD were not defined in previous editions of the DSM, many individu­als with such symptoms may have been included in the not otherwise specified category of perva­sive development disorder.

Social Communication Disorder: Treatment

A specific treatment for SCD is not yet known. It is presumed that speech and language therapy designed to improve language pragmatics will greatly assist these children, along with social skills training.

Social Communication Disorder: Risk For Other Disorders

Social communication disorder can coexist with other disorders, such as speech disorder, specific learning disorder ADHD, and intellectual development disorder.