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Key Guidelines to Creating a Total Communication Environment

See our Adult Special Needs and Learning Disabilities Home Page for a full list of information about adult learning disabilities, and links to information and strategies relating to communication.

Key Guidelines to Creating a Total Communication Environment

Individuals with learning disabilities may experience many types of communication difficulty, but there are also many key things we can do as communicators to facilitate the process and make communication easier. By making subtle and simple changes to our communication we can improve interaction and understanding.

1. Consistency – we must be consistent in the way we communicate with individuals. It is important to all use the same form of communication when communicating with certain individuals.


2. Signing systems – where possible give the sign (or gesture) as well as the spoken word, this doubles the impact of the message, making it easier to understand.


3. Access – put pictures and objects in places that are accessible – both for reach and visually.


4. Language level – remember, if an individual has an understanding at a one word level – use one word. Long sentences containing lots of information will be wasted. If you use more than one word, back it up with a visual, or a sign or gesture. Be aware and remember to pitch your language at a level that the listener will understand, and give them plenty of time to process the information.


5. Questions – know when to use open and closed questions (closed question require a short answer, often “yes” or “no”, open questions seek longer answers).


6. Give time to process, understand and respond – the processing speed of some individuals may be impaired and they may need 10 seconds or more to process a message (count silently in your head).


7. Eliciting language – you cannot force a response. Asking a client to say a word does not mean they understand what they are saying. It is better to put language in, than try and pull it out. Provide opportunities for a response e.g. talk about what the client is doing, expand on their language, start a sentence but let them finish it.


8. Adaptation – if you are not being understood, be flexible, adapt your message. Change the language or simplify the language. Change the mode of communication – e.g. from verbal to picture. Give the client other ways to respond – switches, sign, gesture etc. Give them more time to process. Change your goals if things are not working.


9. Back-up – have a back-up set of resources that you can access when trying to help someone understand. Have a gesture or communication dictionary for each individual so that new staff know how the individual tries to communicate.


10. Awareness of sensory sensitivities – some communicators have sensory sensitivities, hearing or visual impairment or are easily distracted. For this reason it is important to provide an environment with the right lighting and a reduction in background noise etc.


11. Use your body and face – use body language and gesture, use your facial expressions, they all lend weight and cues to your message.


12. Face to face – make sure you are facing the person, be at their level and look at the person you are communicating with.


13. Use touch – it may help individuals understand activities, people and places.


14. Use texture and objects – in their simplest form, textures or objects can be used to give individuals an idea of what is about to happen e.g. give them a spoon and they know its time for lunch or a towel before going swimming etc.


15. Use environmental cues – use the cues that are all around us and build on them. They can include pictures, logos, colours, noise and texture.


16. Use pictures and visuals – visuals and pictures can work for many individuals with communication difficulties. Visual strategies can be used in a multitude of ways to enhance understanding and expression. They are particularly useful for non-verbal individuals, individuals with learning difficulties and / or those with autism.


17. Use print – using a printed word or recognisable symbol system may be helpful when other forms of communication fail.


18. Assistive Technology / Assistive communication – use assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices with a focus on facilitating communication.


19. Use your speech and voice – many people with communication impairment are still able to use their voice and speech. As a speaker be aware of the complexity of the language you are using.


20. The environment – it is important to create an environment that is conducive to communication. Provide good lighting and reduce background noise or distractions.


21. Communication Dictionary – if there is a high turn-over of staff and you work with individuals who are non-verbal, create a communication dictionary for that individual. New staff will be able to refer to the dictionary if they do not understand the individual’s attempts at communication.



For more information about communication difficulties, and ideas and strategies to help communication, see our Resources, or for specific fact-sheets about adult special needs and learning disabilities and information and strategies for improving

communication go to the Downloads Section.


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