One of the most commonly known symptoms of autism spectrum disorder is more formally known as pragmatic language impairment, which refers to the inability to grasp what types of language are appropriate in which types of situations. Many people with autism have a fantastic grasp of language in terms of grammar, spelling, and syntax, but they struggle with how to use language in particular settings.
Pragmatic language impairment may present itself in several different ways in people with autism, including the ways they use language and the ways they understand other people’s language. If you have a child with pragmatic language impairment, you’ve probably noticed them doing things like asking inappropriate questions, initiating off-topic conversations, misinterpreting jokes or sarcasm, taking non-literal language as literal, and more.
It’s common for parents and guardians to feel helpless when it comes to pragmatic language impairment and worry constantly about how their children will be perceived and treated by others because of their behavior. But it’s important that you know there are some actions you can take to help your child use language more appropriately and fit in better. Here are just a few tips you can employ to get started.
5. Discuss appropriate language for different types of settings.
Some people with autism who struggle with pragmatic language impairment make up for it by being highly capable of memorizing rules. You can make use of this skill by being more explicit in your teaching methods. Your child may not be able to learn pragmatic language skills just by watching and listening to other people, but you can teach your child about pragmatic language through more structured conversations.
Talk to your child about a wide variety of made-up and real-life situations and what’s okay or not okay to say in those situations. Be specific. Who is it okay to say these things to? When is it all right to discuss these subjects? Make up rules along the way that your child can understand and apply to real life (you may want to write them down to help you keep track of them). These rules can be adjusted and added to over time as you and your child learn.
4. Role play scenarios for practice.
Practice makes perfect! Once your child has a few basic rules under his or her belt, you can start practicing by setting up fake dialogues or roleplays and asking your child to respond appropriately to whatever you’ve said. If you’re not the creative type who can make up scenarios on your own, keep an eye out for real-life situations (whether they’re ones that have gone well or poorly) that you can reenact with your child later and practice appropriate responses.
Once you begin to see significant improvement in your child’s ability to respond appropriately to what someone says, try asking your child to come up with more than one possible appropriate response for each scenario. This will help develop the understanding that there is always more than one acceptable way for a conversation to go, as long as it remains within the limits of social norms.
3. Encourage your child to rephrase what they just said.
You can also provide an appropriate model of pragmatic language in your own speech when you respond to a child. If your child says a word wrong or uses improper grammar, you can respond to and rephrase their intended message rather than making them feel like they’ve failed by focusing on the errors of the message.
So instead of responding with, “No, that’s not how you say it,” you can try “Did you mean _____?”
Or try an even more positive approach. If your child says, “I goed to the park with Daddy,” you can say, “Yes, you went to the park with Daddy. Did you have fun?” This will allow your child to feel like they’re being heard and learn about pragmatic language without feeling chastised for saying the wrong thing.
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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?