For most children social development occurs through the natural progression of the different elements of play. Usually by 4 children will be interested in making friends, begin to initiate play, enjoy being involved in group activities and are well on their way to learning the social etiquettes of play.
But for a lot of children, especially those that are neurodiverse this simply isn’t the case. By age 4 signs may begin to appear showing that social skills are very much behind that of their peers and families might start to question their development in that area.
Perhaps names like social disorder, social communication, pragmatic language disorder, social pragmatic skills are being thrown around by preschool educators or therapists. Raising concern, while having you also question what those fancy words even mean for your child. There is a common link between lack of social skills and autism, which may be what leads many parents choose to go down the diagnosis route.
Delayed social skills can sometimes be confused with a child simply being a little shyer and more reserved. So, when do those ‘delayed social skills’ warning alerts need to be taken seriously and what do you look for?
Autism and social communication disorder
Long story short, autism and social communication disorder (SDC) are not the same thing. A child will not be diagnosed with both. A child may be considered to have Social Communication Disorder if they exhibit delayed social pragmatic skills but don’t have any of the other characteristics of autism (ASD). Children with ASD often have difficulty with repetitive behaviours, narrow interests, ritualistic behaviours, and emotional regulation.
Social communication disorder affects a child’s verbal and non-verbal communication for social purposes, it is characterised by difficulties in social interactions, social cognition, and pragmatics. Children who have SCD have trouble interacting with others, following social rules, understanding context and tone and the meaning behind words.
In the world of child development there is quite a wide range of what is considered ‘normal’ and with most delays children can often catch up. Most of the time issues will show up before they start school, so by 4 years of age social delays may begin to become more evident and prominent.
6 examples of delayed social development for a 4 year old
- Associative play - by around 3 years of age children begin to start to engage in associative play. This is where they put the skills that they have learnt through prior play stages to use. Associative play is when children start to become interested in being involved in the same activity as other children. They may not necessarily interact the whole time, but they enjoy the company and the activity. Children that are delayed socially may not show any interest in being a part of play with other children and tend to want to play and interact with activities and games on their own. An example would be if a child was playing with a puzzle and another child joined in or started playing with a puzzle alongside them. Do they welcome their contribution and engagement, can they tolerate it? Or do they need to move away from the puzzle to be on their own again?
- Cooperative social play -at around age 4 children are moving towards the development of cooperative social play. This means they are beginning to join in on small group play episodes, can cooperate with peers a lot more, manage conflict easier and take turns. Children that are engaged in cooperative social play can focus on being interactive and engaged with another child while also focusing on an object or activity. As an example, they might get the puzzle and initiate their friend to join in and help them. Together they interact and communicate while finishing the puzzle together.
- Dramatic play – dramatic play is often in full force by this age and children’s imaginations run wild with ideas and play roles. For children with delayed social development, it can be quite difficult to expand on this form of play outside their personal experience. For example, a child with a social delay may put on a fireman’s hat and automatically use a hose to ‘get the fire out’ but that is where their play ends. Other children may be a fireman that is on a mission to save people from a dragon’s fire, or they may put the hat on and become a completely different character. Other dramatic play skills include having the ability to substitute different objects to enhance play, an example of this would be using a block to pretend it’s a teacup. Children with a social delay may struggle with making this connection and will need a proper teacup (or cup) to carry on with their dramatic play.
- Attachment issues – this can be a tricky example at times. All three of my girls struggled with preschool drop offs, but only one has difficulty with social skills. The difference is that two of my girls would cry, make a fuss, and not want me to initially leave but I was confident that they would be fine. Whereas my other daughter I would leave with such guilt knowing how difficult it was for her to be away from me. She struggled so much socially and being away from me caused her great anxiety, I didn’t have that same assurance that she would in fact be fine. Often children with a delay in social development can be clingier and cry more when people leave.
- Social pragmatics – having age-appropriate social pragmatic skills at this age looks like.
-being able to communicate verbally and/or nonverbally effectively through conversations
-being involved in conversations that involve turn taking
-using gestures and body language
-showing interest in others when they are talking
-asking for and sharing information.
A child with a delay in social communication skills may enjoy the speaking part of a conversation but not so much the listening side. Essentially it means knowing what, how and when to say things, it’s a skill that is often beginning to form by age 4.
- Unengaged – often children who have a delay in social communication or social delays can seem unengaged and unresponsive during interactions. An example at this age could be asking a child a question and them not showing any interest at all to engage in answering. It could be that an exciting activity is set up at preschool and all the children venture over to interact and have a turn and a child with a social delay may not show any interest at all in taking part or being a part of the group. Sometimes being unresponsive to their name could also be an indication of a social delay.
Although my daughter had well developed language skills at four years old, she very much struggled with social communication and being able to express her feelings. She had no interest in being a part of social play and was very much still in the earlier developments of play. She was unaware of how to take turns, continue with play, enhance play through imagination and effectively engage and interact. Her autism is the reasoning behind her struggles with age-appropriate social development and is something that will continue to be difficult. Having a delay in social skills doesn’t always mean that a diagnosis is on the cards and sometimes children will catch up in their own time. But being aware of how your child is developing socially can very much assist in getting the right help if its needed. It is also useful to be aware of social delays so that appropriate intervention strategies can be developed to assist in providing the skills to become confident participants in social situations.