Many people with special needs have invisible struggles, such as being nonverbal or having a speech impairment. There are multiple disabilities, both physical and mental, that could cause a person to struggle with communication. These include autism, stroke, traumatic brain injury, neurological or motor disorders, dementia, an injury or illness which affects the vocal cords, deafness, apraxia, and dysarthria.
While the cause and extent of a communication or speech disorder vary from person to person, being unable to communicate often causes frustration both for the individual and for those around them. The inability to communicate ones wants, needs, desires, thoughts, and opinions can be extremely difficult and can affect the individual’s self-esteem and mental health.
Fortunately, there are many resources available for people with disabilities and special needs. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is the term for devices and methods which are used to help those with speech disorders or who are nonverbal to express themselves. AAC uses symbols, aids, strategies, and techniques to enhance the communication process. Examples include sign language, communication boards, and other visual supports, and both manual and electronic devices. While technology has a lot to offer for people who struggle with this, high-tech AAC devices can be expensive and are not always available, nor are they always the best option for everyone.
More low-tech forms of AAC, such as a simple pen and paper to write messages on, as well as pictures boards, can easily be carried around and used in any situation to aid communication. This makes these options convenient and they are typically low-cost and easy to obtain. Adults with disabilities who may not have grown up using technology may not be comfortable operating a high-tech device and could find these low-tech varieties much more helpful.
Common forms of low-tech AAC and how they can help with communication difficulties:
Sign Language: Individuals who are unable to speak but who have the use of their hands can often use simple signs to communicate their basic wants and needs. These can be taught at any age, but of course, will need to be learned by anyone else who the individual may need to communicate with. There are different types of sign language, including American Sign Language (ASL), Signed Exact English (SEE), and Cued Speech. Fingerspelling is fairly easy to learn and, while somewhat time-consuming, requires learning only the signs for letters rather than hundreds of different signs in order to communicate. Encourage family members, caretakers, and friends to learn sign language so they can all communicate with and understand the individual with a speech impairment.
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): The Picture Exchange Communication System is convenient and accessible in the way that it does not require the other person to have any prior knowledge of how it is used, allowing the user to communicate with anyone they may need to. This gives people with speech impairments a lot of freedom and independence as they feel confident in their ability to be able to communicate wants and needs with anyone they come across using this simple system. This alternative means of communication can easily be used by people of all ages who have various cognitive, physical and communication challenges. PECS begins by teaching an individual to give a single picture of a desired item or action to another person, who immediately honors the request. In more advanced phases, individuals are taught to use modifiers and answer questions. The primary goal of PECS is to teach functional communication. Using this system, people who are nonverbal can order at a restaurant, ask for directions, and communicate their ideas and thoughts with those around them.
Communication Board: A communication board is a simple AAC device with pictures of objects and ideas the user may want to communicate. Users point to images, words, pictures, drawings, or letters to help them communicate their message. The pointing might be done with the user’s hands, other body parts, eye gaze, or a pointer held in the hands or mouth. A communication board has the same benefits as PECS, as far as allowing the user to communicate easily and efficiently with anyone, but is very simple and can be used by people of any age and ability. Communication boards can also be created for specific situations and contexts or customized with items the individual asks for often.
Social Stories: Social Stories were designed to help communicate with autistic people and help them to develop greater social understanding and stay safe. They are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why. Comic strip conversations are similar and include visual representations of a conversation. Both of these tools can be used to help you communicate with a nonverbal person as well as giving them a means by which they can learn to communicate their own ideas and thoughts.
Depending on the individual’s disability, level of comprehension, and specific communication impairment, there are other things which you can adapt in your day to day exchanges to help with communication.
Some other tips that can help when communicating with a nonverbal person include:
- Use their name at the beginning of a sentence or conversation so that they know that you are talking to them
- Ensure they are paying attention before you continue the conversation
- Use their special interest or current activity to help you talk to them – engage with them where they are
- Use fewer words and speak slowly
- Repeat or emphasize keywords
- Allow for pauses in the conversation so they can think, process, and respond
- Don’t ask too many questions, and phrase them so that they have a choice rather than open-ended questions
- Use nonverbal communication (eye contact, facial expressions, body language)
- Use visual supports
- Aim for a calm environment to limit sensory input and avoid sensory overload
- Be patient
- Learn how they communicate