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Closeness and Status Are Keys to Pragmatic Communication

Keeping closeness and status dimensions in mind can help atypical children.

Key points

  • Haidt (2006) writes about a ‘horizontal dimension' of closeness and a 'vertical one of hierarchy or status.’
  • Most neurotypical people accurately track and adjust to relationship closeness and status hierarchies.
  • Many neuroatypical people may struggle to track closeness and status and find tracking to be exhausting.
  • Keeping their struggles with closeness and status tracking in mind can help us help neuroatypical children.

I was recently reading The Happiness Hypothesis by psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2006). Haidt writes:

“In all human cultures, the social world has two clear dimensions: a horizontal dimension of closeness or liking, and a vertical one of hierarchy or status. People naturally and effortlessly make distinctions along the horizontal dimension between close versus distant kin, and between friends versus stranger. . .. We also have a great deal of innate mental structure that prepares us for hierarchical interactions. . .. Our minds automatically keep track of these two dimensions.” (italics added)

While Haidt was writing about people in general I am grateful to him for highlighting in such clear prose some often under-appreciated and even unrecognized aspects of what diagnosticians mean when they say that autism spectrum disorder and social (pragmatic) communication disorder are characterized by ‘persistent deficits in social communication and interaction’ such as ‘difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts’ and ‘impairment of the ability to change communication to match context’ (APA, 2013).

Haidt would have been more precise if he had replaced “people” “we” and “our” with “typically developing people" and “those of us who have developed typically.’ Haidt might have then explored what happens when one’s innate mental structures develop atypically so that one does not automatically keep track of relationship closeness and status hierarchies and naturally and effortlessly make distinctions – and adjust interpersonal behaviors accordingly.

Context (Closeness and Status) Tracking: A Neurotypcial Example

When my (mostly neurotypical, now adult) daughter was born we lived in a relatively progressive town and attended a relatively conservative church. She learned to (mostly) address neighbors by their first names while at the same time (mostly) using ‘Mr.’ ‘Ms.’ or ‘Pastor’ at church. She automatically and effortlessly made distinctions and kept track – of how interpersonal behavior rules shifted with context, of how closeness and status are marked.

After a few years we moved to a more conservative town and, at about the same time, began attending a more progressive church. She quickly learned (after a few surprised or joking reactions from others and a bit of coaching by us) to use markers of status such as ‘Mr.’ and’ Mrs.’ in her new neighborhood while at the same time calling fellow congregants by their first names and even our new minister ‘Jeff’.

How Understanding the Role of ‘Closeness’ and ‘Status’ Tracking Can Help

Keeping these kinds of pragmatic communication deficits in mind can help parents, teachers, coaches, and others better understand and work with neuro-developmentally atypical children. Taking into account, when teaching children diagnosed with social communication disorder or autism, that monitoring and responding to closeness-distance of relationships and status hierarchies are not ‘natural’ or ‘effortless’ or ‘automatic’ may, for example, help parents and teachers (or sports coaches, or other adults in the community) to not interpret apparent disrespect as intentional disrespect and respond with less anger and judgement and more patience and forgiveness.

Teachers, therapists and parents can keep these (closeness, status) dimensions in mind when helping neuro-developmentally atypical children improve their abilities to adjust behaviors and communications to context. For example, draw concentric circles representing the closeness – distance dimension (i.e., family are in this inner circle, close friends and then acquaintances here and here, strangers outside the circle) and discuss and role play behaviors and communication that match. Similarly, use a ladder to indicate status hierarchies, and discuss and role play communication and behaviors appropriate for peers versus adults.

These abilities may never become ‘automatic’ and ‘effortless’ but they can become more frequent. Matching communication and behavior to context may not become a finely honed skill (e.g.; the adolescent patient who stood and shook my hand the first time we met in the waiting room – and the 10th) but can become ‘good enough’.

A Reminder – It’s Exhausting for Some to Navigate the Social World

It is important to be aware that, as I have discussed in previous blog posts, many bright and motivated people diagnosed with social communication disorder or autism can do a pretty good, even a pretty much typical, job of adjusting communication and behavior to context. Since, though, identifying and responding to social dimensions is not ‘automatic’ and ‘effortless’, doing so takes a lot of deliberate effort and is exhausting.

A few hours functioning ‘typically’ at school or work might prompt cognitive depletion as evidenced by irritability, and withdrawal. Frequent breaks and ‘alone time’, snacks and regular meals, physical (and sensory) activities and a good night’s sleep can help prevent cognitive depletion and associated problematic behaviors and facilitate quicker recovery.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: Fifth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Haidt, Jonathan (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. NY: Basic Books.

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