About social communication disorder

Social communication disorder is a brain-based condition – that is, where the brain hasn’t developed in a typical way.

Children with social communication disorder have difficulties using verbal and non-verbal communication appropriately in social situations.

Children with social communication disorder have trouble with:

  • communicating appropriately for social purposes – for example, smiling and saying ‘hello’, making eye contact while interacting with someone, or showing something interesting to another person, like pointing to a plane in the sky
  • communicating in different ways with different people – for example, speaking differently to children and adults, or communicating differently in a classroom and at a birthday party
  • following social ‘rules’ – for example, holding out your hand to shake hands, or taking turns during a conversation
  • understanding and using verbal and non-verbal cues – for example, knowing that if a person is looking around while you’re talking, the person might be bored
  • understanding the meaning behind words – for example, understanding that someone is warning you that the footpath is slippery when the person says, ‘Careful – the footpath is wet’
  • understanding that tone and context make words mean different things sometimes – for example, understanding sarcasm or phrases like ‘I’m over the moon’.

Social communication disorder is sometimes called pragmatic language impairment (PLI).

Children with social communication disorder have the disorder from early in their development, but you might not notice the signs. The signs often become more obvious when a child is older and has to deal with more complicated social situations and rules.

Diagnosing social communication disorder

Social communication disorder can be diagnosed by health professionals with experience in child development and developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Diagnosing social communication disorder usually involves several health professionals, including speech pathologists and psychologists. It might include a combination of interviews, language assessments and behaviour assessments.

If you think your child might have social communication disorder, it’s best to talk about your concerns as soon as possible with a trusted health professional, like your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician. These professionals can refer you to a specialist in child development for further assessment.

Social communication disorder or autism spectrum disorder?

Children with social communication disorder have some of the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

For example, children with social communication disorder and children with ASD both have difficulty communicating for social purposes.

But children with ASD also have significant repetitive behaviours, narrow interests, or ritualistic or compulsive behaviours. Some children with social communication disorder might have some mild repetitive behaviours and restricted interests, but this isn’t enough for a diagnosis of ASD.

Therapies and interventions for social communication disorder

There are currently no therapies or interventions specifically for social communication disorder. Also, there’s little evidence about how successful existing therapies are for social communication disorder.

But children with social communication disorder and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have many of the same difficulties. This means that children with social communication disorder can use the same types of interventions as children with ASD.

These therapies typically focus on children’s verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as social skills and play skills.

There’s a wide range of therapies and interventions for children with ASD listed in our Parent Guide to Therapies. Each guide gives you an overview of the therapy, what research says about it, and the approximate time and costs involved in using it.