Social communication is an essential component of daily interactions. It influences how people perceive a message and formulate an appropriate response.  However, in children with autism, this can often be a challenge. To help address these challenges, Jim Mancini, MS, CCC-SLP with Seattle Children’s Autism Center, shared common communicative deficits and strategies designed to encourage communication development at the Autism 205: Social CommunicationMaking Connections presentation. We attended the lecture and have recapped some of the key takeaways.

First, it is helpful to understand why we communicate. We communicate for a variety of purposes, which include to gain attention, make requests, comment, greet, protest or respond to others. Social communication involves using verbal and nonverbal communication to converse socially within the right context. Because Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a communication disorder and impacts a child’s ability to relate, it impacts their social communication. Below are a few key deficits:

  • Social Reciprocity. Social reciprocity is the ability to both socially respond, socially initiate and manage interactions in a give and take manner. This is back and forth engagement within an interaction. Often, children with ASD can either respond to or initiate social interactions, but have difficulty sustaining reciprocity during conversations or social interactions.
  • Social Response. Social response is the ability to “take in” information from others. It includes processing and responding appropriately based on the context of a given social situation. Some children with autism have trouble responding when the interaction is not facilitated. For example, if asked a question, a child might be able to respond but is unable to elaborate or initiate an appropriate follow-up question.
  • Social Initiation. Social initiation refers to the ability to begin interactions. Some children have adequate skills to initiate interactions (often to serve their own needs or talk about topics of interest), but have difficulty with socially responding to the questions or comments of others

Each of these is an important function of social communication. They help enable a child to access and utilize available social knowledge and world experiences, and to organize and make sense of information.

In the lecture, Mancini suggests the following three areas that should initially be targeted to help a young child organize and make sense of social communication, as they are the foundation of strong communication skills.

  • Engagement. Increasing engagement is essential in encouraging social communication. Mancini suggests using a preferred activity, such as peek-a-boo or blowing bubbles, to create a predictable and enjoyable social routine. For example, if you are using bubbles, only blow bubbles when the child looks at you and uses a targeted behavior, such as saying “I want more bubbles,” or gesturing for the bubbles. By taking control of the preferred object and the child’s access to it, you are able to increase a child’s motivation and social response.
  • Joint Attention. Joint attention is an important aspect of social communication because it is the main vehicle for learning. The goal is to look at books, objects or events together. This can be achieved through pointing, eye contact, verbalization or eye gaze shifting. For example, hiding puzzle pieces can be a good activity to increase joint attention. You and your child can make a game for searching for puzzle pieces together.
  • Imitation. Imitation is a social act that is important for reciprocity. To encourage imitation, Mancini suggests replicating a child’s motor skills, play actions, language, gestures and facial expressions.  This will help to facilitate their imitation. A good tool for encouraging imitation is singing favorite songs such as “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

When encouraging social communication, remember that it takes time. Communication takes place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and should be a collaborative effort between parents and school. It is difficult to encourage change in just one hour with a speech language pathologist a week.

This is just a brief overview of what Mancini covered. If you have questions surrounding social communication or would like a copy of the presentation, you can email Mancini directly at [email protected].

Autism 200 is a series of 90-minute classes for parents and caregivers of children with autism who wish to better understand this disorder. Providers from Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington, as well as community providers, teach the series on the third Thursday of every month from 7-8:30 p.m. Click here for a link to more details and to register for this month’s class.