Make Treatment Work: 4 Factors Affecting Social Communication Intervention in Children

Many therapy approaches and procedures are designed to enhance social communication in children with language impairment, autism spectrum disorder, social (pragmatic) communication disorder, or intellectual disability. However, many of these interventions have not been empirically studied, so it is difficult to know if a procedure will be efficacious.

The following four points are a good starting place to judge whether a social communication intervention is likely to produce desired outcomes.


Traditional social skill programs involve a lot of talking. This is also true for many social communication interventions. Explanations, instructions, and discussions are all delivered by way of spoken language. This can be problematic for children with reduced language comprehension and/or production. The following adjustments in communication can make instruction more accessible for children with language difficulties:

  • Shorter sentences
  • Slower rate
  • Familiar vocabulary
  • Repeated instructions
  • Exaggerated intonation
  • Frequent comprehension checks

It is important to adjust the language demands of tasks and activities to match each child’s level of linguistic ability.


Some commercially available programs and less formal group interventions take a one-size-fits-all approach. This is problematic as children with social communication problems vary markedly in their individual strengths and challenges.

Interventions must be selected, tailored, and adapted specifically for the needs of each child. Adams et al. (2012) provide an innovative method for individualizing goals within the context of a structured program.

Considers the Child’s Social Goals

Children bring a variety of internal “social goals” to interactions. Some social goals are positive – cooperating, making friends, or having fun. Some goals are negative – aggressing, dominating, or avoiding interactions altogether.

A child with negative social goals is not likely to implement the positive social behaviors that we teach. Thus, it is important to consider what each child seems to want from social interaction. Although we cannot impose a social goal on another person, we can guide children to adopt more positive social goals.

We can encourage positive social goals through the following methods:

  • Frequently highlighting positive aspects of interactions – “It’s fun to play with other kids”
  • Reinforcing instances of sociable behavior – “You shared your toy with Michael. That was so nice!”
  • Stressing the value of cooperative actions – “Look at those kids, they are working together. They are having fun together.”

It is also important to provide children with good social models so that they see many examples of positive social behavior.

Adequate Intensity and Duration

Meaningful changes in social communication require time and effort. For some children, growth may occur in small increments over time. An ongoing, consistent program is needed to facilitate sustained progress. A child may require repeated exposures to new concepts and multiple opportunities to practice within authentic social contexts. The most effective social communication interventions are those that form an integral part of the child’s educational curriculum.

By identifying these four factors we can build effective interventions and create meaningful change in the social communication of children with disabilities.

  1. Adams, C., Lockton, E., Gaile, J., Gillian, E., & Freed, J. (2012). Implementation of a manualized communication intervention for school-aged children with pragmatic and social communication needs in a randomized controlled trial: the Social Communication Intervention Project. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 47, 245-256. doi:10.1111/j.1460-6984.2012.00147.x