Many people hear the term ‘autistic’ and have some vague idea what it means. Autism is a spectrum disorder which means the condition has wide-ranging degrees of severity. You can have a child at one end of the spectrum with barely noticeable traits, whilst another at the other end of the spectrum has full blown autism. One condition which comes within this spectrum is Semantic Pragmatic Language Disorder, or SPLD as it is more commonly known. The most common features of SPLD include:
-delayed language development
-learning to talk by memorising phrases
-repeating phrases out of context, especially snippets remembered from television programmes
-muddling up ‘I’ and ‘you’
-problems with understanding questions, particularly questions involving ‘how’ and ‘why’
-difficulty following conversations
Most of the children diagnosed as having semantic pragmatic disorder also have some mild autistic features. For example, they usually have difficulty understanding social situations and may not know what is expected of them. They may also prefer to stick fairly rigidly to routines and often need to have their day planned out for them. They also lack imaginative play and will tend to copy other people rather than think of their own ideas. If we break the condition down into its two components, ‘Semantics’ and ‘Pragmatics’ we will have a better understanding of what the condition involves and why it develops.
Semantics is the aspect of language function that relates to understanding the meanings of words, phrases and sentences, and using words appropriately when we speak. Children with semantic difficulties have a very hard time understanding the meaning of words and sentences. They often take slang expressions literally or interpret them oddly and they are unable to understand the concept of sarcasm.
Pragmatics is the area of language function that embraces the use of language in social contexts – knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. Children with pragmatic difficulties have great difficulty using language socially. For example, they often do not understand that we take turns to talk, and they will talk over the top of another person, constantly interrupting at inappropriate times. On other occasions, they respond to what you say with inexplicable silences, or in a voice that is too quiet. They may look around them during a conversation, giving the impression of complete disinterest in what is being discussed.
Children with SPLD have a language disorder that affects both semantic processing and the pragmatics of language use. Some authorities see SPLD as part of the autism spectrum of disorders while others see it purely as a language disorder. It is difficult to make an individual diagnosis because the symptoms vary immensely. Although the mistakes with words and phrases can appear quite amusing, they can be extremely embarrassing and upsetting to the child. It is therefore important that family, peers, teachers and other adults apply great sensitivity in guiding the young person with SPLD.