You’ve heard of Autism but have you heard of social pragmatic language disorder? If you are close to someone on the Autism Spectrum, you probably answered yes. But if not, let’s talk about it. The average person is well aware that speech pathologists turn W’s into R’s and help those who stutter but they may not know about the large part of our work that addresses Language Impairment and Social Pragmatic Language Disorder. Social communication is a challenge for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In honor of Autism Awareness month this April, let’s talk about Social Pragmatic Language and all the communication skills you might not have known you were putting to work to communicate at an everyday place like the Farmers Market. This week, Speech is in the…Farmers Market.

First, some needed definitions: Language is about comprehending a message as intended plus ordering words (and their grammatical parts) to express a message that matches the idea in your mind. We’ll talk about Specific Language Impairment another time. Pragmatic language goes beyond the order and grammar of what is said to include facial expression, body language, tone of voice, environmental cues and much more that altogether gives nuance to a message and helps a person read between the lines. Persons with pragmatic language disorders have difficulty in some or many of these areas. They may misinterpret or not notice facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and have general difficulty with interacting with others socially.

Here are some examples of what can go awry without proper command of social skills: If you say you love your birthday gift but don’t include a smile or excitement in your voice while you say so, will you be believed? If you keep looking at your watch or around your friend as they recount an altercation with a peer, will they think you’re listening? Talking closely in a crowded bar is fine, but if you do it to the clerk at the grocery store, will they get the wrong idea? Imagine you have a cramp in your leg, so you squat on the ground to work it out…this works fine in the gym but if you were in a conference, stretching discreetly under the table will achieve fewer strange glances. Are you really filling your sister in on the television program she missed if you swap out all the character names for ‘he’?

Sometimes, what is needed is specific and individualized instruction to use appropriate eye contact, facial expression, body distance, pitch rise and fall of the voice (prosody), humor, figurative language (such as idioms, metaphor and hyperbole), repair of communication breakdowns plus to avoid awkward conversations. Adjusting style, content and delivery of a message appropriate to the environment or culture prevents one from appearing to be rude unintentionally. That’s a lot but no two persons with Social Pragmatic Language Disorder are alike so they may exhibit many or just a few of these types of differences.

Whether you have typical social competence or are working on improving your social aptitude, check out the list below to appreciate that Speech in indeed in the Farmers Market.

My family and I had the chance to enjoy the White Rock Farmers Market at Lake Pointe Church as well as the Dallas Farmers Market downtown. You’ll find friendly folk, unique products (like plants that grow in a pot that is also a plant), divinely scented homemade lotions, super fresh produce, good advice on how to grow a tomato plant (because the woman selling them had to grow them herself), organic perfume and one of a kind apparel and accessories. The open-air setting makes it easy to hang around for a while. The water table equipped with old school pump and beach toys grants the kids 30 more minutes of patient behavior. The empanadas are fresh and the smell in the air proves it.

Social pragmatic therapy frequently involves the use of practiced scripts (like a mini play) to convert newly acquired social skills into real social competence (functional use in the real world). I like that the Farmers Market provides a captive audience to try said script over and over. If interacting with others is a challenge for my clients, they don’t have to worry about vendors changing the topic or looking disinterested. Vendors are excited to talk about their wares and likely a little nervous too (about making the sale more than the interaction.)

So where is social language at the Farmers Market? Here:

1.) Eye contact. It should be gentle and friendly. Looking through or around a person isn’t ideal but neither is a super intense stare. Find a happy medium.

2.) Facial expressions. Which shoppers look like they can’t believe the deal they found? Who looks like they wish those socks that grow with your kid came in one more color?

3.) Body language. The shopper facing the stand wants to know more. The one looking at the stand with their body facing away wants to know more but doesn’t want to commit to a conversation.

4.) Body proxemics. The vendor leaning across his table invites the shoppers to come try something. The vendor seated and reading a book wants shoppers to know they can look without pressure; just let them know if you need help.

5.) Conversational initiation. Start a conversation with a topic of shared interest or experience; like the wares on display or the weather.

6.) Conversational maintenance. Added comments are usually relevant to the last thing said but they could also be about interruptions to the environment. I was chatting about all the places the baby could wear her tutu until the conversation shifted to the wind that wanted to knock over the display. It’s also important to allow the conversation to flow from topic to topic as new ideas emerge in connected comments. Getting stuck on one aspect of a topic can feel awkward.

7.) Conversational turn-taking. Conversation should bounce back and worth like a volleyball; overlapping at times (without interrupting) and without pauses that are too long. Heed the pauses, though. As they lengthen, it signals a need to end the conversation or change the subject. You do that without thinking, right?

8.) Ending a conversation. A simple “thanks” with a finishing smile says I appreciated the description of why the eggs are different colors but I’m moving on now. A comment about how the produce two stands over looks fresher may be true…but rude.

9.) Back-channeling. This is a combination of facial expressions, hand gestures and words spoken (i.e., hmm, uh-huh, er) that signal that one is in agreement, in disagreement, or needs more information without having to interrupt the flow of conversation to say so.

10.) Making adjustments for the situation. You’ll want to greet the baker with a casual but friendly ‘Hello,’ but you might say it with more animation and a leaning in posture when you greet her toddler who tagged along.

See, Speech (social skill) is in the Farmers Market. To learn more or see how an individualized social language therapy can benefit someone you know, visit your neighborhood speech-language pathologist.

Until next time, have fun deal hunting…. To learn more about all the fun to be had at Dallas area Farmers Markets, visit:

http://www.greensourcedfw.org/events/north-texas-farmers-markets-complete-listings-25

To learn more about social pragmatic language disorders and and Autism please visit:

http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/Autism/#six

https://www.autismspeaks.org

Photo by Daniel Farrell

About K. Joi Uzoh, M.A., CCC-SLP

Joi is an ASHA licensed Speech-Language Pathologist and the Owner and Director of Speech and Language Services at ClearWay Speech and Language Center, a family-centered speech and language therapy private practice located in East Dallas. She has been helping families improve the communication skills of their loved ones since 2007 and especially enjoys working on language disorders, complex sound disorders, and stuttering in persons of all ages. Through individualized service and caregiver education, she helps families realize their communication goals.

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