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Social communication, play & ND

What do we mean by social communication and play?

Social communication refers to the way we interact with others, both verbally and non-verbally, e.g. tone of voice, facial expressions and turn taking. We learn how to interact with others from a very young age through play, such as, playing peekaboo, and with toys together. As we grow, this play becomes more complex, helping us learn more about the world and how to interact with others, e.g. imaginative role play and group games. This play and social interaction then leads to building social relationships with others.

Social communication, play and ND

Social communication and play styles can develop differently in neurodivergent (ND) individuals.This can be confusing and challenging for these individuals as neurodivergent and neurotypical social interaction and play styles may not be compatible with each other. This can lead to the neurodivergent individual feeling misunderstood, isolated and/or struggle to maintain relationships.

It is important for everyone, both neurotypical and neurodivergent, to understand and accept different styles of communication and play and to value these differences. If children/young people hear negative comments about their communication, e.g. they “don’t play with other kids” or “they talk too much”, it can be damaging to self-esteem; this can lead to anxiety and masking.

How play might look in neurodivergent children/young people

How non-verbal communication might look in neurodivergent children/young people

How conversation styles might look in neurodivergent children/young people

We need to become neurodiversity-informed, so we can begin to disrupt ableist practices and transform early childhood experiences for neurodivergent and disabled children. They are not problems to be fixed but individuals to be understood

Read more

A guide to neurodiversity in the early years, Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, 2023)

Types of communication

While many individuals use verbal language as their main form of communication, there are other ways to communicate that are just as valid and meaningful. All types of communication should be accepted and valued, not prioritising spoken language above others.

  • Picture/ symbol exchange When a child/young person does not use verbal language, or finds it challenging to use verbal communication in certain situations, it can help to use pictures or symbols. These pictures/symbols can be shown to, or exchanged with, others to express different messages. This could include sharing something they’re excited about, requesting something, e.g. a snack, or a break, or to express an idea, thought or emotion.
  • Makaton/ signing Spoken language can be supported/aided by hand signs. Signing systems, such as Makaton, can significantly support understanding and use of verbal language. Makaton supports the signing of key words in communication, with limited grammar, such as tenses or gender pronouns.
    Signing aid systems, including Makaton, are communication aids.
    These are different and separate to non-verbal sign languages, such as BSL (British Sign Language) which are complete natural languages, with extensive and complex vocabulary and grammar, rather than just being a supplementary aid. BSL is used predominantly by Deaf individuals or those with limited hearing.
  • Stimming, also known as self-stimulatory behaviour, is repetitive movements which help to regulate the nervous system. Stimming can soothe the body when in distress/dysregulated, or can help express joy or excitement. Everyone, including neurotypical people, can ‘stim’. The difference is that it is a lot more common and frequent in neurodivergent people. Stimming should never be prevented (unless it is self-injurious*), as it is a form of regulation/self-soothing, communication or expression of neurodivergent joy! Stimming and movement can also help concentration and focus, having a higher need for more stimulation in their sensory systems. For example, tapping fingers, bouncing or swinging legs, biting pens/pencils, skin picking, hair twiddling, vocal stims etc. *Some stims can be a form of self-injurious behaviour, which can be harmful e.g., chewing inside of cheeks, hair pulling. Although these stims support self-regulation, they are also causing harm to yourself. Where possible, alternative non-harmful stims should be supported.
  • AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication)  describes a wide range of communication aids to help individuals understand others and express themselves. AAC may include using gesture and signing; low-tech aids such as symbols, word boards and communication boards and books; or ‘hi-tech’ aids such as electronic communication aid devices that have voice outputs.
  • Writing/ drawing Writing and/or drawing out what you want to say can be a really helpful tool in supporting your message or to help you express something that is complex to explain verbally alone. This can be done with simple pen and paper, whiteboards or on technology devices.
  • Total Communication The principle of ‘Total Communication’ is for the individual to use any form of communication that they have, to support their understanding and expression, such as, language, gesture, sign, drawing, facial expression and mime. The idea is that any means of communication is valuable as long as it works for that person.

Support strategies

Links and resources you might find useful

Intensive interaction

Intensive Interaction is a practical approach designed to support early communication and interaction. This approach can be used with a wide range of individuals including both those who are non-speaking and verbal.

Go to Intensive Interaction website

Social Stories

Carol Gray is the creator of Social Stories and provides more information about Social Stories here

Go to website

More from National Autistic Society

The National Autistic Society have further helpful information about Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations

Go to website

Speech and Language Therapist

Although the information focuses on autism, Emily (autistic Speech and Language Therapist, SLT) shares helpful neurodivergent affirming recommendations, including those for social communication.

Go to website