What is Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 February 2019
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Semantic-pragmatic disorder (SPD) is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with understanding and using language. This condition is believed to be closely related to autism, and people with this disorder are sometimes diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Typically, children with this developmental disorder acquire speech skills later than their peers, and this is a key symptom of SPD.

This disorder was first described in the 1980s. Definitions of the condition vary, as with many developmental disorders, and it can be challenging to diagnose. It may occur independently or in conjunction with another type of developmental disorder, and it can manifest in varying degrees of severity. Getting second opinions from experts is usually recommended before settling on a diagnosis, because everyone has a slightly different approach to assessment of children with suspected developmental disabilities.

Semantics involves the process of hearing, understanding, and interpreting speech. Children with semantic-pragmatic disorder have difficulty understanding spoken communications, especially complex directions or questions. This can lead to problems in the classroom, and the child may have a short attention span, an inability to follow directions, or behavioral problems as a result of his or her comprehension difficulties. The pragmatic use of language involves learning how to use language in social interactions, and in this disorder, an inability to use language socially can result in inappropriate language, the repeating of random words or phrases out of context, and other communication problems.


When a child acquires language skills late and displays signs of semantic-pragmatic disorder, he or she may be sent to a speech-language pathologist or an expert in developmental disorders. These health care professionals can perform diagnostic tests to learn more about the nature of the patient's condition, and development a treatment plan. Speech therapy is a common component of a treatment plan, and support in the form of more attention from teachers, a quiet working environment to avoid distractions, and exercises with parents and caregivers may also be recommended.

Over the course of time, a child with semantic-pragmatic disorder can develop relatively normal communications skills and natural speech patterns. The child may require ongoing support, especially as he or she encounters more complex language and environments. With consistent treatment, a child with this language disorder can live a very active, normal life. People with this condition may also find it helpful to alert friends and coworkers to the fact that they have a pragmatic language impairment which may at times make them appear socially inept or insensitive.


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Post 2

It might be helpful to think of the brain as a pie chart. Different people have different percentages of different kinds of intelligence. People with a semantic-pragmatic disorder would have a smaller than average slice of verbal intelligence, but often have a larger than average slice of visual and experiential memory. I know an autistic man who can tell you on the spot how many seconds are going to pass until a given event. It is often the case with people with these "disorders" that their minds are simply balanced much differently than the average person.

Post 1

I have known people who have asperger syndrome and seem to struggle with this disorder early on. My friends are brilliant in terms of memorizing details and become very good at specific fields of study but often lack an ability to recognize social cues or reach out socially. Sometimes, people may fail to recognize this tendency and dismiss my friends as stupid or mean. I have myself made this mistake in the past, when one of my friends with asperger syndrome said something to me that offended me. I realized later on that this was not the intent of the statement, but a socially inept slip due to the disorder.

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