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Social Communication Benchmarks 

Cultural and linguistic factors may influence appropriateness and/or relevance of benchmarks. Variability may exist in the acquisition of milestones due to a number of factors (e.g., linguistic diversity and neurodiversity).

Birth to 12 Months

  • prefers looking at human face and eyes
  • prefers listening to human voice
  • looks for the source of voice
  • differentiates between tones of voice (e.g., angry, friendly)
  • smiles back at the caregiver
  • follows the caregiver’s gaze
  • participates in preverbal vocal turn-taking with the caregiver
  • vocalizes to get attention
  • demonstrates joint attention skills (sharing attention)
  • uses gestures to make requests and direct attention
  • plays simple interactive games, such as peekaboo
  • seeks comfort or a safe haven from the caregiver
  • expresses feelings
  • develops object permanence
  • discriminates facial expressions
  • fears strangers
  • develops relational memory (faces/voices)
  • changes behavior to achieve a goal
  • imitates gestures or oral movements

12–18 Months

  • develops a range of communicative intentions (e.g., requesting, protesting, commenting)
  • brings objects to show caregivers
  • requests by pointing and vocalizing
  • solicits attention vocally
  • practices vocal inflection
  • says “bye” and other ritualized words
  • protests by shaking head and/or saying “no”
  • supplements gestures with verbal language
  • is aware of the social value of speech
  • responds to others’ speech with eye contact
  • demonstrates sympathy, empathy, and sharing nonverbally
  • shows joy, fear, and anger
  • displays an increase in autonomy
  • resists control
  • co-regulates interactions

18–24 Months

  • uses single words to express intention
  • uses single and paired words to command, indicate possession, express problems, and gain attention
  • uses I, me, you, my, and mine
  • participates in verbal turn-taking with a limited number of turns
  • demonstrates simple topic control
  • interrupts at syntactic junctures or in response to prosodic cues
  • demonstrates secure or insecure attachment pattern
  • exhibits emotion and behavioral regulation
  • demonstrates an increase in autonomy
  • develops emerging implicit perceptual access reasoning
  • shows daily routine schemes in play

24–36 Months

  • engages in short dialogues
  • verbally introduces and changes topic
  • expresses emotion
  • begins to use language in an imaginative way
  • relates own experiences
  • begins to provide descriptive details to enhance listener understanding
  • uses attention-getting words
  • clarifies and asks for clarification
  • uses some politeness terms or markers
  • begins to demonstrate some adaptation of speech to different listeners
  • can deceive and detect deception
  • understands that others may feel differently than oneself
  • follows rules
  • shows common but not daily schemes in play (e.g., doctor, shopping)
  • uses embedded requests

3–4 Years

  • engages in longer dialogues
  • anticipates next turn at talking
  • terminates conversation; appropriately role-plays
  • uses fillers—such as “yeah” and “okay”— to acknowledge a partner’s message
  • begins code-switching and uses simpler language when talking to very young children
  • uses more elliptical responses, such as “Mommy went home, I didn’t”
  • requests permission
  • begins using language for fantasies, jokes, and teasing
  • makes conversational repairs when not understood and corrects others
  • infers information from a story and infers indirect meanings
  • uses primitive narratives—events follow from the central core
  • uses inferences in stories

4–5 Years

  • uses indirect requests; correctly uses deictic terms (e.g., this, that, here, there)
  • uses twice as many effective utterances as 3-year-olds to discuss emotions and feelings
  • uses narrative development characterized by unfocused chains—stories have a sequence of events but no central character or theme
  • develops basic understanding of theory of mind, including judgment that another person may have a belief that differs from the truth
  • shifts topics rapidly
  • shows fantasy schemes in play
  • understands that beliefs can result in predictable emotions
  • understands that someone may feel the same way when experiencing a similar event
  • uses comissives/promises

School-Age Years (6–12 Years)

  • demonstrates increased understanding of theory of mind (predicting what one person is thinking about what another person is thinking or feeling; understands strategies to hide deceit, recognizes sarcasm)
  • provides assistance and demonstrates altruism
  • uses narrative development characterized by causally sequenced events using “story grammar”
  • demonstrates improved conversational skills (e.g., topic maintenance, repair, and increased number of turns)
  • extends topic of conversation
  • demonstrates refined social conventions
  • demonstrates metapragmatic skills—child is able to think about social and conversational rules
  • uses language for varied functions, including persuading and advancing one’s opinion
  • understands that people can feel multiple emotions at the same time
  • practices increased self-regulation
  • uses indirect requests
  • uses inferential language
  • uses ambiguous language (figurative)
  • uses sarcasm
  • uses double meanings (puns)

Older Adolescence Into Adulthood

  • uses verbal and nonverbal language competently and flexibly
  • navigates multiple registers flexibly and fluidly
  • demonstrates refined understanding and use of nonverbal behavior
  • can explain idioms and nuanced figurative language
  • develops close friendships and romantic relationships
  • continues to develop empathy

Related Research

Adams, C. (2002). Practitioner review: The assessment of pragmatics. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43(8), 973–987. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-7610.00226

Gard, A., Gilman, L., & Gorman, J. (1993). Speech and language development chart (2nd ed.). Pro-Ed.

Hwa-Froelich, D. A. (in press). Social communication development and disorders (2nd ed.). Taylor & Francis.

Russel, R. L. (2007). Social communication impairments: Pragmatics. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 54(3), 483–506. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2007.02.016

Wellman, H. M., Fang, F., & Peterson, C. C. (2011). Sequential progressions in a theory-of-mind scale: Longitudinal perspectives. Child Development, 82(3), 780–792. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01583.x

Westby, C., & Robinson, L. (2014). A developmental perspective for promoting theory of mind. Topics in Language Disorders, 34(4), 362–382. https://doi.org/10.1097/TLD.0000000000000035

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