Information for Families: Semantic and Pragmatic Difficulties

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Bowen, C. (2011). Information for Families: Semantic and Pragmatic Difficulties. Retrieved from on [insert the date that you retrieved the file here].


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 can have a very hard time understanding the meaning of words and sentences.

This is sometimes apparent from their unusual responses when they are told to do something, and sometimes it is revealed by the questions they ask, and the things they say about words. For example,12 year old Nerida, when confronted with the task of defining the word "acquire" was unable to detect from the context that she was being asked what "acquire", rather than "a choir" meant.

"Nerida, what does acquire mean?" Her fleeting glance reflected a significant improvement in the eye-contact stakes. "How can I know what a choir means?" she rasped. "A choir is a whole bunch of singers, right? Their songs don't mean anything...because you can't understand them right, because they all sing at once." She scowled bleakly for emphasis, adolescence looming. "Not that sort of 'a choir' - I mean this sort of 'acquire'." I wrote it down.

"Oh!" she said, "Acquire. Acquire means you've got something you didn't have before. When I pick things up at the bank, dad says, "Where did you acquire all those forms? But I don't tell him because he already knows they're from the bank. He says 'acquire' right because he doesn't want to say 'steal' and he can't say shoplifting because its banklifting. Ha ha".

She laughed dryly and warmed to the topic. "When I speak 'french' he says, 'And how did you acquire that language?''" 

Characteristically, Nerida, who fits neither the Asperger's nor the semantic pragmatic language disorder criteria precisely, wanted to grapple minutely and pedantically with all the ramifications of the word "acquire". Her unique perspective on word meanings gave pause for thought.

People with semantic processing difficulties have particular trouble with abstract words like 'curious' or 'vague', words that relate to feelings and emotions such as 'embarrassed' and 'anxious', and words that refer to status (for instance 'expert' or 'authority') or degree (for example, 'essential' or 'approximate').

They have difficulty with idioms, sayings and slang expressions, often taking them literally or interpreting them oddly. For example, when asked if he enjoyed spending time with his friends, a 14 year old with semantic processing problems replied, "I don't see how you can spend time, and I certainly don't see how you could enjoy it because spending time is not something you can do. You can only actually spend money". There are more examples of over-literal interpretation below.

Another difficulty children with semantic problems experience is that they may not be able to identify the key point or topic in a sentence, and because of this may suddenly change the subject, very obscurely, apparently thinking they are on the same subject. Here is another real example from a girl aged eleven. Question: "Could you get the book off the shelf and give it to me?" Reply: "The Gulf Stream warms the coast-line"



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 - and how to "be" with other people).

Children with pragmatic difficulties have great trouble using language socially in ways that are appropriate or typical of children of their age. They often do not understand that we take turns to talk, and they will "talk over the top of you" at times, or, at other times respond to what you say with inappropriate silences, or in a voice that is too quiet. They may interrupt excessively and talk irrelevantly or about things the listener shows no interest in. Their communicative behaviour often appears rude and inconsiderate.

They often do not assume prior knowledge. So for example, one boy explained to me in minute detail how to wash a car, wrongly assuming that I needed (and wanted) the information and that I had never washed a car.

On the other hand, they may assume prior knowledge that the listener could not possibly have, and launch into a long disquisition without describing in sufficient detail the participants, location and general background of their story.

They can go on far too long telling stories, and include so much detail that the listener becomes disinterested.

Pragmatic skills include:

  • knowing that you have to answer when a question has been asked;
  • being able to participate in a conversation by taking it in turns with the other speaker;
  • the ability to notice and respond to the non-verbal aspects of language (reacting appropriately to the other person's body language and 'mood', as well as their words);
  • awareness that you have to introduce a topic of conversation in order for the listener to fully understand;
  • knowing which words or what sort of sentence-type to use when initiating a conversation or responding to something someone has said;
  • the ability to maintain a topic (or change topic appropriately, or 'interrupt' politely);
  • the ability to maintain appropriate eye-contact (not too much staring, and not too much looking away) during a conversation; and
  • the ability to distinguish how to talk and behave towards different communicative partners (formal with some, informal with others).


Clinical management of any communication disorder is geared to the unique needs and capacities of the particular client in their particular setting.

Examples of over-literal interpretation

Age: Nearly 5
Provisional Diagnosis: SPLD; an ASD was confirmed at age 8

  • Tina's older sisters are making birthday invitations for Tina's 5th birthday party. Tina
    has a special interest in dogs. Pauline shows her the drawing of a dog she's just finished.
    Pauline: "How does that look?"
    Tina: "By its eyes"
  • During a speech therapy session
    Tina: "Tina don't want to go back to school"
    Caroline: "You'll have to go back at 10:30"
    Tina: "How far is 10:30 at?"
    Caroline: (indicates on a clock) "When this hand gets to here. You have a little while left."
    Tina: "Tina want a thousand whiles left. Tina like the whiles at here"

Age: 6
Diagnosis: Language Learning Impairment (LLI/SLI)

  • It is breakfast time.
    Mother: Hands Daniel a glass of milk. "Put your milk on the table"
    Daniel: Takes it and pours it on the table.
  • During a therapy session Daniel is sorting through a pencil case of
    newly sharpened pencils, stabbing them into the top of the case,
    breaking the points off intentionally.
    Mother: (sharply) "Cut it out, Daniel"
    Daniel: (very pleased) "Cut it out, Daniel" He takes the scissors
    and cuts the point off the pencil he is holding.

Age: 9
Diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder (Aspergers)

  • Bill is visiting his dad at his building site office.
    Someone knocks on the office door.
    Dad: (who should know better) "Get the door for me will you mate?"
    Bill: (examines the hinges) "I need some sort of tool"
  • Lucy is in tears the classroom.
    Teacher: "Why did you pull Lucy's hair?"
    Bill: "She told me to"
    Teacher: "No she didn't"
    Bill: "She did"
    Teacher: "What did she say?"
    Bill: "She said you pull my hair and I'll tell the teacher"
    Teacher: "That's not telling you to pull her hair"
    Bill: (offended) "Yes it is. You're just telling lies"
  • Bill is covered in paint at the end of art class
    Art Teacher: "Your mum's going to kill me when she sees your shirt"
    Bill: "No she won't, she's a Christian"

Age: 7
Diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder (Aspergers)

  • The clinician overhears a colleague strike up a conversation with
    Angela and her mother (6 months pregnant) while they are waiting
    for their appointment.
    Friendly Adult: "Is your mum having a baby?"
    Angela: "No but she will in August"
  • Angela is looking at a piano in an antique shop.
    Friendly Adult: "Can you play the piano?"
    Angela: "I don't know"
  • At speech.
    Caroline: "What's your new teacher like?"
    Angela: "A teacher"
  • At speech.
    Angela: "Mum is mad with me because I laugh when Jason farts."
    Caroline: "Is that right?"
    Angela: "Yes, she says it only encourages him"
    Caroline: "But you think it's funny?"
    Angela: "Farting is not funny. But he makes a funny smell so that's funny"
    Caroline: "A funny smell is not funny ha ha. A funny smell is funny not
    very nice or funny unusual"
    Angela: (slowly and patronisingly): "NO-a-FART-smell-is funny-HAAA-HAAA"
  • Angela is said to be a tell-tale who keeps telling the same tale.
    "Dob" is Australian slang for telling tales. She loves to talk about farts, burps
    swearing ... anything "rude".
    Angela: "Andrew told Matthew to piss off because he was burping"
    Teacher: "You haven't seen Matthew and Andrew today"
    Angela: "I know"
    Teacher: "You're dobbing them in AGAIN for something that happened
    last week?"
    Angela: "I know"
    Teacher: "That's ancient history, Angela"
    Angela: "No, it was on Tuesday last week"

Age: 6
Diagnosis: Language Learning Impairment (LLI/SLI)

  • Nico is strolling from the waiting room into his SLP’s office.
    Mother: Get a wriggle on.
    Nico: "wriggles" like The Wiggles
  • Nico has attached himself like a limpet to the carpet face down
    with his hat pulled over his nose, but is happy to chat.
    Caroline: (lies down on her tummy next to him) "Mind if I join you?"
    Nico: (jumps up, gets the adhesive tape, smiles) "With this?"


Early pragmatic language difficulties in siblings of children with autism: implications for DSM-5 social communication disorder?
Meeting the Challenge of Social Pragmatics with Children on the Autism Spectrum (2009)
Social Communication Disorders in School-age Children

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