Pragmatics: Unspoken Rules of Communication

The Role of Pragmatics in Communication

As children grow and their language develops, they learn more than just words. They learn about the world around them and how to socialize with different people in different contexts. They learn how to adapt their behavior depending on their conversation and social environment. These rules of communication are called pragmatics, and will vary depending on the development and culture of the child. Kindergartners will behave very differently on the playground than in the classroom. Likewise, preschoolers in Japan and France may have different social communication expectations placed on them. While the United States remains a melting pot of many different cultures, research shows some common benchmarks in the development of social communication. And while it’s important to remember that all children may develop at their own pace, growth of these social skills is important for both social and academic success.

Our eyes can reveal a lot about us and our social use of eye contact is a vital act of communication. They can reveal whether we are interested or distracted, whether we are telling the truth or a lie and suggest how confidence we feel. This is why it is important for children to develop a communicative competence through appropriate eye contact  in order to become better engaged with others. Children begin learning pragmatics at birth and continue to develop these skills throughout life. Within the first year, typically developing children will show social communication with eye contact, vocal turn taking, and facial expression and recognition. As they develop, children will continue to learn from their environment, and begin to understand pragmatic rules and social clues. Children with disorders like autism tend to have significantly reduced eye contact than is considered socially accepted. This may lead communication partners to misinterpret their reduced eye contact as a lack of interest; often, the “rules” of eye contact in a social context are difficult to master for this population. Understanding social thinking, as well as the inherent challenges certain children may face here, can help build meaningful relationships.

Pragmatics and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

It is important to remember that children with neurodevelopmental disorders will display a number of developmental “red flags”, and not every child will have the same presentation. If you are concerned that your child is not meeting these milestones, you may want to consult with your pediatrician. If your child is then diagnosed with a social communication deficit, speech therapy can be an important piece of their intervention plan. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are not only experts on speech and language development, but also nurture the social and emotional growth of their clients. Children who struggle to make eye contact and other social communication challenges often benefit from group therapy, where they can interact with like peers who are working on the same or similar goals in a format moderated by the SLP. SLPs may also use cognitive behavioral therapy to help reduce anxiety and negative thoughts associated with social communication in order to help clients self regulate and process emotions. Additionally, SLPs work collaboratively with other specialists such as occupational therapists and therapists trained in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). There are many different approaches to therapy and it may take time to determine which approach, or combination of approaches, is right for your child. So continuing to educate yourself as a parent will help you make the both informed clinical decisions as well as maximize your effectiveness as a home-based partner in your child’s total therapy program.


Autism Speaks

Social Thinking



Find your speech solution
Speech Therapy for Kids