We are constantly told about how important it is to communicate and how good communication can be the key to so many things in life, new friends, the job you want, getting what you want from life.
But let’s think about how this is for people who find it hard to communicate, find it hard to pick up on body language, tone, sarcasm, colloquial expressions or just understanding language itself.
Sometimes for someone with learning disabilities, this is exactly the learning that needs some support. For some people, with more complex needs, they are picking up only key words from sentences, those words that we tend to emphasise. So in the sentence “What do you want to eat when we get home?” the only words that are heard are “eat” and “home” and not much sense can be made of them. In a world, where you hear only key words, there’s a lot of confusion and not much understanding.
Similarly, with people who have difficulty in processing verbal language, the act of processing can take much longer than we allow for, particularly in this world of instant reaction. If you actually count up to 20 or 30 seconds before you answer the question – would you like some tea? – it can seem like an eternity (and socially awkward for your host). One young man I worked with would need a full 60 seconds before his brain, affected by daily and considerable seizures, could process the information. Try it. Counting to 60 takes a long time and the temptation to repeat yourself within those 60 seconds is almost too hard to resist.
These are the kind of assumptions we take for granted when communicating with people. We take it for granted that a person has heard, and understood, all the words in the sentence we have just uttered. We take it for granted that they will be able to process information at the same speed that we can.
If you’re trying to support someone with learning disabilities, the best thing you can do is question these assumptions. Don’t assume that the person will have understood everything – keep your sentences simple and straightforward. I love an idiom, an analogy or sarcasm as much as the next person but just don’t assume the next person will understand what you’re doing. Don’t race ahead, giving several instructions or pieces of information at once, allow time for each piece of the puzzle to be considered. Because, sometimes, when you don’t question the assumptions you’re making, it can just be a complete puzzle.
In today’s world we are often focused on results. For some reason the 21st century has, in many ways, become about fast results and short-term thinking. In learning disability, however, the truth is it’s so often about the long-term view, the reflection after a longer period of time that enables you to see progress.
I often think in the term “learning disability” the emphasis is more often on the ‘disability’ than it is on the ‘learning’ and yet it is very important to remember that a learning disability is not a medical difficulty, for instance, or mental health difficulty. Someone with a learning disability has a difficulty with learning and the one thing we know about learning is that it takes time!
The desire to see some improvement, some change, for families, schools, funders, is entirely understandable. But sometimes this need for change drives us to look for short-term solutions. However, in the field of learning disability sometimes if you’re looking for signs of change in the short-term, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Take for instance, the example of a young man I worked with a few years ago. Let’s call him John. John was 18 when I first starting working with him, he has autism and some other neurological difficulties, some of which meant he was likely to be in pain a significant amount of the time. He has some words but the majority of his communication is not verbal. This can be very tricky for John, and for those around him, as he found the inability to communicate very stressful and frustrating. This means that when John would become confused, anxious, stressed, fed up, bored, he would become aggressive and sometimes violent. Biting, scratching, pushing over tables and chairs, screaming, and shouting.
In his learning plan, we looked at what he enjoyed doing, the characters he enjoyed reading about and how we could increase his ability to communicate, and importantly to communicate some of his frustration, without it becoming about scratching or biting. Over the first few years, as we tapped into his motivation and the best ways he would learn, his challenging behaviour decreased dramatically but there were still a few episodes a month. He was interested in the learning we were doing but there were still many steps to go. In the end, it took 7 years to get to the point that John had successfully learnt how to communicate he didn’t want to do something – he would say the words “don’t want” while gently pushing someone’s hand away – without it becoming a source of anxiety for him that would lead to aggression.
Seven years seems like a long time, and when he did achieve this, it did feel like a hugely significant milestone. But when you reflect back on those years, you can begin to see all the changes that did happen, small changes that are almost impossible to see at the time. The steps that it took to develop John’s ability to choose and understand choice; the trying out of different ways to communicate from encouraging the use of the verbal communication John could command to using symbols and objects; the multitude of times John was encouraged to participate in a group activity, to promote ways of interacting with different people; to trying to utilise his wicked sense of humour so that others began to see him in a more positive way. All these were changes, changes that John himself achieved but it is only from the long-term view, reflecting over several years, that these changes can really be seen.