Semantic Pragmatic Disorder
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Semantic Pragmatic Disorder
Social communication disorder
Other namesSocial (pragmatic) communication disorder

Social communication disorder (SCD)--previously called semantic-pragmatic disorder (SPD) or pragmatic language impairment (PLI)--is a disorder in understanding pragmatic aspects of language. People with SCD have special challenges with the semantic aspect of language (the meaning of what is being said) and the pragmatics of language (using language appropriately in social situations). Social communication disorder has been formally recognized as a diagnosis since the DSM-5 was released in 2013.


Individuals with social communication disorder have particular trouble understanding the meaning of what others are saying, and they are challenged in using language appropriately to get their needs met and interact with others. Children with the disorder often exhibit:

  • Delayed language development
  • Language disorders (similar to the acquired disorder of aphasia) such as word search pauses, jargoning, word order errors, word category errors, verb tense errors.
  • Stuttering or cluttering speech
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Tendency to be concrete or prefer facts to stories
  • Difficulties with:
    • Pronouns or pronoun reversal
    • Understanding questions
    • Understanding choices and making decisions
    • Following conversations or stories (conversations are "off-topic" or "one-sided")
    • Extracting the key points from a conversation or story; they tend to get lost in the details
    • Verb tenses
    • Explaining or describing an event
    • Understanding satire or jokes and contextual cues
    • Reading comprehension
    • Reading body language
    • Making and maintaining friendships and relationships because of delayed language development
    • Distinguishing offensive remarks

According to Bishop and Norbury (2002), children with semantic pragmatic disorder can have fluent, complex and clearly articulated expressive language but exhibit problems with the way their language is used. These children typically are verbose. However, they usually have problems understanding and producing connected discourse, instead giving conversational responses that are socially inappropriate, tangential and stereotyped. They often develop eccentric interests but not as strong or obsessional as people with autism spectrum disorders.

The current view, therefore, is that the disorder has more to do with communication and information processing than language. For example, children with semantic pragmatic disorder will often fail to grasp the central meaning or saliency of events. This then leads to an excessive preference for routine and "sameness" (seen in autism spectrum disorders), as children with SCD struggle to generalize and grasp the meaning of situations that are new; it also means that more difficulties occur in a stimulating environment than in a one-to-one setting.

A further problem caused by SCD is the assumption of literal communication. This would mean that obvious, concrete instructions are clearly understood and carried out, whereas simple but non-literal expressions such as jokes, sarcasm and general social chatting are difficult and can lead to misinterpretation. Lies are also a confusing concept to children with SCD as it involves knowing what the speaker is thinking, intending and truly meaning beyond a literal interpretation.


The DSM-5 categorizes SCD as a communication disorder within the domain of neurodevelopmental disorders, listed alongside other disorders of speech and language which typically manifest in early childhood. The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for social communication disorder is as follows:

  • A. Persistent difficulties in the social use of verbal and nonverbal communication as manifested by all of the following:
  1. Deficits in using communication for social purposes, such as greeting and sharing information, in a manner that is appropriate for the social context.
  2. Impairment of the ability to change communication to match context or the needs of the listener, such as speaking differently in a classroom than on a playground, talking differently to a child than to an adult, and avoiding use of overly formal language.
  3. Difficulties following rules for conversation and storytelling, such as taking turns in conversation, rephrasing when misunderstood, and knowing how to use verbal and nonverbal signals to regulate interaction.
  4. Difficulties understanding what is not explicitly stated (e.g., making inferences) and nonliteral or ambiguous meanings of language (e.g., idioms, humor, metaphors, multiple meanings that depend on the context for interpretation).
  • B. The deficits result in functional limitations in effective communication, social participation, social relationships, academic achievement, or occupational performance, individually or in combination.
  • C. The onset of symptoms is in the early developmental period (but deficits may not become fully manifested until social communication demands exceed limited capacities).
  • D. The symptoms are not attributable to another medical or neurological condition or to low abilities in the domains of word structure and grammar, and are not better explained by autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder), global developmental delay, or another mental disorder.


Treatments for SCD are less established than for treatments for other disorders such as autism.[1] Similarities between SCD and some aspects of autism leads some researchers to try some treatments for autism with people with SCD.[2]

Speech therapy can help individuals who have communication disorders. Speech and language therapy treatment focuses on communication and social interaction.[3] Speech therapists can work with clients on communication in various settings.[4]

Similar or related disorders

Hyperlexia is a similar but different disorder where main characteristics are an above-average ability to read with a below-average ability to understand spoken or written language. Joanne Volden wrote an article in 2002 comparing the linguistic weaknesses of children with nonverbal learning disability to PLI.[5]

Differences between SCD and autism

Communication problems are also part of the autism spectrum disorder (autism); however, individuals with autism also show a restricted pattern of behavior, according to behavioral psychologists. The diagnosis of SCD can only be given if autism has been ruled out.[6] It is assumed that those with autism have difficulty with the meaning of what is being said due to different ways of responding to social situations.

Prior to the release of the DSM-5 in 2013, SCD was not differentiated from a diagnosis of autism. However, there were a large number of cases of children experiencing difficulties with pragmatics that did not meet the criteria for autism. The differential diagnosis of SCD allows practitioners to account for social and communication difficulties which occur to a lesser degree than in children with autism.[7] Social communication disorder is distinguished from autism by the absence of any history (current or past) of restricted/repetitive patterns of interest or behavior in SCD.[8]


In 1983, Rapin and Allen suggested the term "semantic pragmatic disorder" to describe the communicative behavior of children who presented traits such as pathological talkativeness, deficient access to vocabulary and discourse comprehension, atypical choice of terms and inappropriate conversational skills.[9] They referred to a group of children who presented with mild autistic features and specific semantic pragmatic language problems. In the late 1990s, the term "pragmatic language impairment" (PLI) was proposed.[10][11]

Rapin and Allen's definition has been expanded and refined by therapists who include communication disorders that involve difficulty in understanding the meaning of words, grammar, syntax, prosody, eye gaze, body language, gestures, or social context. While autistic children exhibit pragmatic language impairment, this type of communication disorder can also be found in individuals with other types of disorders including auditory processing disorders, neuropathies, encephalopathies and certain genetic disorders.[12]

Prior to the release of the DSM-5, there was debate over the relationship between semantic pragmatic disorder and autistic disorder, as the clinical profile of semantic pragmatic disorder is often seen in children with high-functioning autism.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Evidence- based practice and Autism in schools (2nd ed.). Randdolph, Massachusetts: National Autism Center. 2015. ISBN 978-0-9836494-5-8.
  2. ^ Evidence- based practice and Autism in schools (2nd ed.). Randdolph,, Massachusetts: National Autism Center. 2015. ISBN 978-0-9836494-5-8.
  3. ^ "Social Communication Disorder & how it's treated". Autism Speaks. Retrieved .
  4. ^ "Social Communication Disorder & how it's treated". Autism Speaks. Retrieved .
  5. ^ Volden, Joanne (October 22, 2002). "Nonverbal learning disability: What the SLP needs to know". The ASHA Leader. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved 2013.
  6. ^ "Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder" (PDF). Retrieved 2013.
  7. ^ Mash, Eric. (2016). Abnormal Child Psychology, 6e, 6th Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf Online]. Retrieved from
  8. ^ American Psychiatric Association, ed. (2013). "Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder, 315.39 (F80.89)". Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 47-49.
  9. ^ Rapin I., and D. Allen (1983). "Developmental language disorders: Nosologic considerations", in U. Kirk (ed.), Neuropsychology of language, reading, and, spelling (pp. 155-184). Academic Press.
  10. ^ Conti-Ramsden G.; N. Botting (1999). "Classification of children with specific language impairment: longitudinal considerations". J. Speech Lang. Hear. Res. 42 (5): 1195-204. doi:10.1044/jslhr.4205.1195. PMID 10515515.
  11. ^ Bishop, D. V. M. (2000), "Pragmatic language impairment: A correlate of SLI, a distinct subgroup, or part of the autistic continuum?" In D. V. M. Bishop and L. B. Leonard (eds.), Speech and Language Impairments in Children: Causes, characteristics, intervention and outcome (pp. 99-113). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
  12. ^ Bishop, D. V., and C. F. Norbury (Oct 2002). "Exploring the borderlands of autistic disorder and specific language impairment: a study using standardised diagnostic instruments". Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines. 43 (7): 917-29. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00114. ISSN 0021-9630. PMID 12405479.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Bishop, D. V.M. and Norbury, C. F. (2002). "Exploring the borderlands of autistic disorder and specific language impairment: a study using standardised diagnostic instruments" Journal of Child Psychiatry, 43: 917-929. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00114. [Wiley Online Library]. Retrieved from

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