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Promoting Social and Language Competence Simultaneously

Language and social competence can be facilitated simultaneously in children with language problems, including children with autistic spectrum disorders, say Dr. Bonnie Brinton and Dr. Martin Fujiki of the Department of Communication Disorders. These professors recently presented a workshop on social competence and language disorders at the University of the Pacific in California.

Brinton explained that their last ten years of research have shown that many children with language disorders have difficulties with various aspects of social competence. They have trouble making friends, establishing and maintaining relationships, or interacting with others. They tend to be withdrawn and isolated, having trouble understanding the emotions of others and knowing what to do in social contexts.

"We contend that these issues of social competence can be addressed at the same time that we facilitate language," Brinton said. "Our workshop focused on methods and techniques to this end."

Brinton and Fujiki explained to the attending speech-language pathology graduate students and practicing speech-language pathologists that these disorders need to be addressed. "These children need to be able to anticipate what kinds of emotions certain situations will evoke in individuals," Brinton said. "If someone is standing on a cliff will that person feel frightened; or when children see a strange dog, how are they going to feel and react?" She also highlighted the importance of teaching children that other people may be feeling something different from what the children themselves are feeling-a distinction many children with language impairments do not make.

"In terms of what contributes to our quality of life, there is nothing more important than our ability to interact socially and to form relationships."

"Children with language impairments do not hide their emotions," said Brinton. She gave the example commonly presented to effected children about a child who wants a scary Halloween costume. The child's grandmother works very hard to make him a costume, but what she gives him is a Barney costume. "The question we ask is 'how should the child react to that?'" Brinton said. Children with language or social impairments would respond bluntly and rudely, "That's not what I wanted; it's not scary." Typical children understand that the child is disappointed, but that it is important to be sensitive to the grandmother's feelings. "Those children with language problems and especially those with autistic spectrum disorders, lag way behind," Brinton said.

Brinton and Fujiki tried to focus their workshop towards practical application. "There are things you can do consistently in typical kinds of classroom activities rather than completely new and different activities every time," Brinton said. "Often teachers in speech language pathology simply don't have time to implement completely new activities. We teach them how to get the most out of the activities that they typically do, and how to tweak those activities in order to facilitate emotional understanding and conversational responsiveness."

Brinton explained that language and social competence aren't going to improve overnight. "It takes a lot of effort, time, care, and consistency in the educational process to do that," she said. "It is not something they will get quickly or in a brief exposure." The process is very difficult and should be incorporated into a child's individual education plan early, because these needs persist throughout schooling.

Yet the time and effort are worth it, says Brinton. "In terms of what contributes to our quality of life, there is nothing more important than our ability to interact socially and to form relationships," she stated. "It is a long road for these children, and if they hope to have a satisfying life, these social issues need to be attended to as much as the academic, and we think you can do them both at once."

28 August 2008