Pragmatic language impairment

  (Redirected from Semantic pragmatic 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.

Pragmatic language impairment
Other namesSocial (pragmatic) communication disorder


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
  • Aphasic speech (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
    • Organizational skills

According to Bishop and Norbury (2002), children with semantic pragmatic disorder 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 obsessional interests but not as strong or eccentric 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 PLI children 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 PLI as it involves knowing what the speaker is thinking, intending and truly meaning beyond a literal interpretation.

Related disordersEdit

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.[1]

Differences with autismEdit

Communication problems are also part of the autism spectrum disorders (autism); however, individuals with autism also show a restricted pattern of behavior, according to behavioral psychology. The diagnosis SCD can only be given if autism has been ruled out.[2] 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 was 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 that occur at a lesser degree than in children with autism.[3] 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.[4]


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 manifest 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.



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.[5] They referred to a group of children who presented with mild autistic features and specific semantic pragmatic language problems. More recently, the term "pragmatic language impairment" (PLI) has been proposed.[6][7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Volden, Joanne (October 22, 2002). "Nonverbal learning disability: What the SLP needs to know". The ASHA Leader. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved February 14, 2013.
  2. ^ "Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder" (PDF). Retrieved September 28, 2013.
  3. ^ Mash, Eric. (2016). Abnormal Child Psychology, 6e, 6th Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf Online]. Retrieved from
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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)
  9. ^ 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