When it comes to the identification of social communication deficits, SLPs are in a perpetual search for quick and reliable strategies that can assist us in our quest of valid and reliable confirmation of social communication difficulties. The problem is that in some situations, it is not always functional to conduct a standardized assessment, while in others a standardized assessment may have limited value (e.g., if the test doesn’t assess or limitedly assesses social communication abilities).
So what type of tasks are sensitive to social communication deficits? Quite a few, actually. For starters, various types of narratives are quite sensitive to social communication impairment. From fictional to expository, narrative analysis can go a long way in determining whether the student presents with appropriate sequencing skills, adequate working memory, age-level grammar, and syntax, adequate vocabulary, pragmatics, perspective taking abilities, critical thinking skills, etc. But what if one doesn’t have the time to record and transcribe a narrative retelling, what then? Actually, a modified version of a narrative assessment task can still reveal a great deal about the student’s social communication abilities.
For the purpose of this particular task, I like to use photos depicting complex social communication scenarios. Then I simply ask the student: “Please describe what is happening in this photo.” Wait a second you may say: “That’s it? This is way too simple! You can’t possibly determine if someone has social communication deficits based on a single photo description!”
I beg to differ. Here’s an interesting fact about students with social communication deficits. Even the ones with FSIQ in the superior range of functioning (>130) with exceptionally large lexicons, still present with massive deficits when it comes to providing coherent and cohesive descriptions and summaries.
Here are just a few reasons why this happens. Research indicates that students with social communication difficulties present with Gestalt Processing deficits or difficulty “seeing/grasping the big picture”(Happe & Frith, 2006). Rather than focusing on the main idea, they tend to focus on isolated details due to which they have a tendency to provide an incomplete/partial information about visual scenes, books, passages, stories, or movies. As such, despite possessing an impressive lexicon, such students may say about the above picture: “She is drawing” or “They are outside” and omit a number of relevant to the picture details.
Research also confirms that another difficulty that students with impaired social communication abilities present with is assuming perspectives of others (e.g., relating to others, understanding/interpreting their beliefs, thoughts, feelings, etc.) (Kaland et al, 2007). As such they may miss relevant visual clues pertaining to how the boy and girl are feeling, what they are thinking, etc.
Students with social communication deficits also present with anaphoric referencing difficulties. Rather than referring to individuals in books and pictures by name or gender, they may nonspecifically utilize personal pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ to refer to them. Consequently, they may describe the individuals in the above photo as follows: “She is drawing and the boy is looking”; or “They are sitting at the table outside.”
Finally, students with social communication deficits may produce poorly constructed run-on (exceedingly verbose) or fragmented utterances (very brief) lacking in coherence and cohesion to describe the main idea in the above scenario (Frith, 1989).
Of course, by now many of you want to know regarding what constitutes as pragmatically appropriate descriptions for students of varying ages. For that, you can visit a thread in the SLPs for Evidence-Based Practice Group on Facebook entitled: GIANT POST WITH FREE LINKS AND RESOURCES ON THE TOPIC OF TYPICAL SPEECH AND LANGUAGE MILESTONES OF CHILDREN 0-21 YEARS OF AGE to locate the relevant milestones by age.
Interested in seeing these assessment strategies in action? Download a FREEBIE HERE and see for yourselves.
- Frith, U., (1989). Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Happe, F. & Frith, U. (2006). The weak coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36 (1), 5-25.
- Kaland, N., Callesen, K., Moller-Nielsen, A., Mortensen, E. L., & Smith, L. (2007). Performance of children and adolescents with Asperger Syndrome or High-functioning Autism on advanced theory of mind tasks. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 38, 1112-1123.