Dr. Karina Poirier discusses the role of language skills in our social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Language can be written, spoken, and nonverbal altogether, but its entire purpose is to communicate our thoughts, ideas, feelings, and needs. Allow me to explain how and why language is so vital to our social existence as human beings, and how children with autism are frequently at a social disadvantage due to impairments in their language development.
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Language skills refer to our ability to acquire words and comprehend sentence structures, which in turn, allow us to speak with and communicate with other people. Language skills also enable us to talk internally to ourselves as we work through our own internal problems—this is known as “self-talk.” The development of each of these abilities can be attributed to our interactions with the people around us using our social skills, which is a result of both nature and nurture. As human beings, we are biologically programmed to imitate language; we learn language from others within our social groups, such as our families and circles of friends. When we achieve proficiency in basic language skills, these skills continue to contribute to the growth of skills in the cognitive, emotional, and social domains. So, as you can see, deficits in cognitive skills, emotional skills, and language skills can negatively impact a child’s ability to communicate—a tremendous challenge consistently faced by children with autism.
To illustrate the interdependence of all these skill sets, consider the following scenario. Imagine that you want to tell a friend about a great movie you saw over the weekend. Before you can even begin to use your language skills to verbally describe the plot, conflict, or characters, you must use your cognitive skills to pay attention to the movie, remember people and places shown in the movie, and remember the order of the events that occurred in the movie. Further, to communicate effectively and have a productive conversation with your friend, you will need to use your emotional skills to accurately “read” your friend’s reactions to your story. You must also use your social skills to follow the “rules” for holding a conversation.
Allow me to drive home the key role that language skills play in our overall development: language skills allow us to put our thoughts into words (cognitive skills), to put words to our emotions (emotional skills), and to communicate these thoughts and emotions to the people we encounter daily (social skills).
Social skills and language skills are interrelated. Language acts as a way for a child to connect with the world. She not only says certain words, but also chooses specific phrases to say to certain people and uses certain facial expressions and hand gestures. It’s here that the clear distinction can be made between the language of a typically developing child and that of a child with autism.
Even if an autistic child knows how to say the words that make up sentences, her speech is rarely accompanied by nonverbal social cues, such as facial expression, eye contact, or body gestures. Many people find this gap between speech and manner rather awkward and unsettling. Sadly, this often results in an autistic person being cast out from the wider social world.
It’s important to make sure that children with autism not only learn how to use language for expressing their thoughts and feelings, but also how to use it appropriately in a pragmatic way to start conversations, maintain and shift topics, ask questions, and comment on others’ statements, if they do, they’re far more likely to benefit from social skills training. This training is successful when the child starts using language effectively to develop friendships and engage in social activities, such as talking to friends on the phone, or participating in extra-curricular activities.
It is rare to learn a new language for the sole purpose of reading its literature; it is much more common to acquire a new language to converse with people from other cultures. Language powerfully influences which people we socialize with and how we do so. Therefore, children whose social skills are impaired should be taught how to use language in pragmatic ways to benefit from such training. To be accepted in relevant social groups and have friends require more than a collection of certain socially positive behaviors. To be socially successful, one must have adequate emotional, cognitive, and communication skills.