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.