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How to effectively and respectfully communicate with individuals with special needs

Communication is recognized as the transmission of a message from one individual to another, either verbally or non-verbally. It is in fact an interaction between two people, where these messages are transmitted and then responded to, which characterizes a conversation. 

Many children living with special needs maintain the ability to communicate to share their emotions and messages with us, however, it is the reciprocation and understanding of our responses that affect their ability to interact with us. Within this situation, the child living with communicative difficulties is attempting to interact with us, yet we are often faced with multiple barriers that restrict our ability to interact.

It is important to ensure that we, as neurotypical individuals, assist this interaction by communicating at an appropriate level. Many professionals, even those working within the education sector, have limited experiences of communicating with children living with special needs. As a result of this lack of exposure, common misconceptions of how to effectively and respectfully communicate with children with special needs plague our society. This results in people with disabilities experiencing awkward and isolating interactions with their neurotypical counterparts.

There is an infinitude of points that we can consider to ensure that we are communicating with this demographic in a respectful manner. Whilst it is important to remember that not all of these points are relevant to each child living with special needs, they may be beneficial to consider upon each interaction to ensure the effective and considerate inclusion of children living with special needs.

How to respectfully communicate in people with special needs tip number one – Speak with respect

First and foremost, it is imperative to speak with respect using your normal voice and tone. In the same way that we would not adapt the way we speak to a person based on their hair color, we should not alter the way we speak to somebody living with special needs either. To ensure that you are communicating respectfully, consider the way that you would want to be spoken to. 

How to respectfully communicate in people with special needs tip number two – Allow extra time

The average processing time of a neurotypical child is thought to be around 0.2 seconds, however, the processing time for children with special needs can be much greater than this. In an attempt to eliminate frustration and confusion during your conversation, allow the child additional time to process your response before repeating yourself or offering more information. If you do not receive an immediate response, do not assume that they haven’t heard you – it is likely that they are absorbing and processing your comment or question in their own good time. A good benchmark figure is around 10 seconds. This will allow the child to comprehend your statement before deliberating your response. Adding further conversions to your interaction with the child before they have been allowed this processing time may be overwhelming for the child. 

How to respectfully communicate in people with special needs tip number three – Speak directly to the person: not at or about them.

Regardless of whether or not the child is able to verbally or non-verbally communicate with you, chances are they can understand what you are saying about them. By not involving them in your conversation, you are disregarding their potential contributions and taking away their voice. Questions and conversations about the child should always be directed to them at an appropriate level to show consideration and respect. In instances such as these, a parent or caregiver will likely support the child in communicating with you in response to your interactions. Whilst the parent or caregiver is supporting the child with their communication, it is important to continue to respond directly to the child to acknowledge their responses.

How to respectfully communicate in people with special needs tip number four – Don’t pretend to understand

If you struggle to understand a particular statement whilst you are conversing with a child with special needs, do not pretend to understand. Instead, apologize and let the child know that you are having difficulties. In some instances, you may be able to ask a parent or carer to support your conversation. If this is not the case, however, asking yes or no questions is a simple and effective way to easily transmit messages to one another. 

How to respectfully communicate in people with special needs tip number five – Say what you mean

Using slang, colloquial terms with sarcasm can cause confusion and might be misunderstood by individuals with special needs. Instead, use literal and clear language until you have a more in-depth understanding of communicative abilities.

How to respectfully communicate in people with special needs tip number six – Consider non-verbal communication

Children with special needs who have little or no speech still have the same communicative needs as the rest of us, as after all, “just because a person can’t speak doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.” There is an array of non-verbal communicative practices that we can adopt to support the interaction between ourselves and our neurodiverse companions. Perhaps the most prominently recognized form of non-verbal communication is sign-language, including Makaton – a unique language program that uses symbols, signs, and speech to enable people to communicate. In addition to sign language, Picture Exchange Communication systems (PECs) and communication boards are a favorable form of low-tech assistive technologies. 

Many of the aforementioned forms of communication, however, rely on the education of an individual to ensure their correct use. It is important to recognize that these are not the only methods to effectively and respectfully communicate with an individual with special needs in a non-verbal capacity. Simple gestures, such as pointing or waving, and facial expressions such as smiling are all advantageous methods of communicating without relying on speech. 

How to respectfully communicate in people with special needs tip number seven – Relax

It has been reported that many people deter from communicating with people with special needs as they often feel anxious and uncomfortable in doing so. One of the most prevalent points to note is the fear of offending or embarrassing somebody in an attempt to respectfully communicate. If this a familiar emotion, relax and remember that everybody makes mistakes. If you feel that your attempts to communicate in a respectful manner have been met with embarrassment or offense, simply apologize and embrace the feedback to support you next time.

Jodie Pedwell

Jodie qualified as a Primary in the UK but quickly found her passion lay within the field of Special Education. Whilst teaching within an ASD specialist class, Jodie discovered her expertise lay in supporting individuals who displayed challenging behaviors and has since held various positions where she could fulfill this dream. In her free time, Jodie loves to explore the outdoors and practice yoga and meditation.

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