Understanding and Communicating with Special Needs Children - Achieve Beyond

Understanding and Communicating with Special Needs Children

Written By: Michelle E. Sisto, MS CCC-SLP TSSLD CAS

Every child has different traits and aspects of themselves that make them different and unique.  That does not mean less than or wrong.  Some children are born deaf and require a hearing aid or cochlear implant to hear.  Some children are diagnosed with non-verbal autism and require a speech generating device to express their wants and needs.  Others have difficulty walking and require walking aids or a wheelchair.  No matter the difference that is present, all of these children are still children.  They deserve to be heard and understood, even when it is difficult. 

Common Misconceptions About Communicating with Special Needs Children

A common misconception regarding the special needs population is that they don’t want to engage or don’t need to be listened to.  Especially when it comes to non-verbal autism, non-verbal or non-speaking does not equate non-hearing or without the want to communicate. 

All of these children need to be treated with dignity and respect.  It is important to always presume competence, which means to approach a child with the thinking that they have the capacity to think, learn, and understand.  It is vital that we learn the strengths of these children and communicate in the way that they use.  

What To Avoid Doing

Have you ever been in a group of people and they are talking about you as if you aren’t there?  It is not a great feeling.  This is what we do not want to do.  We never want to talk about a child to others, as if the child is not there. 

If the child is not responding, it may not be because they do not understand, but it could be that they need an extra second to process or a different way to express themselves. There are a few things we want to avoid when communicating with special needs children. 

Don’t dominate the interaction

Firstly, try not to dominate the interaction.  We want to allow the child to have the opportunity to guide and lead the interaction so they know they are heard and validated. 

Avoid Anticipating Their Needs

Also, we want to try to avoid anticipating the child’s needs.  We could potentially be wrong and are taking away communication opportunities from the child.

Similarly, we want to try and not always fill up silence with talking. Special needs children sometimes need extra processing and response time, especially when learning to communicate. They will be less successful when they feel rushed or that their voice doesn’t matter if the adult is non-stop talking.  

Don’t Ignore Communication Attempts

Furthermore, we want to make sure that we are not ignoring communication attempts that are being made.  All attempts at communication should be responded to, in order to encourage communication and assure the child that what they have to communicate matters.

What You Should Do When Communications with Special Needs Children

Now that we discussed some things we should avoid, we want to highlight what we can do when communicating with special needs children. 

Talk to your child as you would anyone else

First, always talk to your child normally. We want to speak at a normal speed. When the child is present, we never want to talk about them as if they are not there. We want to directly address the child instead of speaking to another person for them. Use simple and direct language without making the language childish.

Understand your child’s communication mode

We also want to understand the way in which the child communicates. Different communication methods include gestures, pictures, speech generating devices, sign language, or eye gaze/facial expressions. Just because a child does not communicate in a “typical” way does not invalidate their communication. All communication methods are valid and should be responded to.

Think of behavior as a way of communication

Try to not simply dismiss behaviors as behaviors but try and listen to the behavior to see if the child is trying to communicate using those behaviors. Every single behavior is an attempt to communicate something, regardless of whether that behavior is positive or negative. Children engage in challenging behavior for a reason. There are a variety if different purposes for each behavior and it is vital to understand the root need and reason behind it to best support the child.

Use Concrete Language

When speaking to special needs children, it is important to use concrete language. This eliminates any ambiguity that could be misunderstood. This helps the children know exactly what is being said, leaving nothing up to interpretation.

Provide Choices

Additionally, whenever possible, provide choices to your child. This can occur during play time, meal time, grooming activities, or morning/nighttime routines. Giving choices is helpful for several reasons. It gives them autonomy and control to decide what they want for themselves, however, the adult is still in control by limiting their options. Giving choices helps the child accurately respond and increase their understanding instead of asking them open ended questions.

Use visuals to support communication and language

Providing visuals of the objects also is helpful with your child identifying objects and understanding their options. This helps language become concrete and associates language with the appropriate objects or visuals. Visuals can help decrease frustration if auditory language is hard for the child and it can support them in communicating and being understood. Visuals can also help special needs children to anticipate what is coming next and understand routines going on around them (i.e. visual schedules, first/then boards).

Utilize expectant waiting

Another important strategy is expectant waiting. Give your child time to process and understand what is being asked of them during communication routines. It may take your child longer than you expect to formulate and provide a response. Pausing for 5-10 seconds allows processing and response time that could support your child in communicating without support.

Use yes/no or choice based questions

Instead of asking open ended questions, ask yes/no questions and give choices because the open ended questions may be difficult for the child to formulate a response to. Closed set questions, such as yes/no or ones with choices, help support your child in understanding possible responses and supporting their response formulation.

Above all else, make sure your child feels heard and validated regardless of support level needed or diagnoses. There is a reason I never used the words “speech” or “talking” in this post. That is because communication goes way beyond simply saying a few words. Our children are communicating with us and sometimes the noise of the outside world gets in the way. If we slow down, think outside the box, and truly listen with more than just our ears, communicating with our children will become so much more meaningful and foster a connection that is really all anyone needs.

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