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Children with Severe Communication Difficulties and High and Complex Needs


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It is important to have a number of functional strategies to help children with severe communication difficulties. For instance, a boy with autism may use visual schedules and strategies, a girl with hearing impairment may use sign and facial expression, and a boy with profound learning difficulties may use a communication device or objects of reference. Every child is different and if you work with several children with special needs it is important to have strategies to communicate with all of them individually. As skilled communicators we must also be aware of our own language and the communication tools that we use.


See our Total Communication section and Key Guidelines sections for more information about different ways to facilitate communication with children with special needs. Our Autism section also contains lots of relevant information regarding communication.

Communicating with children with severe speech and language difficulties
Children with severe communication difficulties or high and complex needs pose a real challenge when it comes to communication. However, there are often ways that these kids can access communication and there are ways that you can help them understand. Developing these communications systems can take time and often you may only be communicating with a few key words. Non-verbal individuals who have major learning difficulties or “severe” autism are often very difficult to interact with. Not only do they have major difficulties understanding, but may also be unable to express their own needs or feelings. By “severely” autistic, I refer to those individuals that are non-verbal, non-communicative, and often described as “in their own world”. These individuals have difficulty following instructions and may also display challenging behaviour if approached or encouraged to do something.


One approach to use is called Intensive Interaction. This method of communication tries to create a communication environment that is enjoyable and non-threatening to the individual with autism, or severe learning difficulties. In some respects the model of the approach is taken from the way we first start to communicate with naturally developing infants, where interactions are short, and involve noises, touch and eye contact. Interactions are brief but can grow over time. The child is an active participant who is motivated to communicate and who will take the lead and feel a sense of control over the communicative situation. Through this approach parents, carers and teachers can make a connection with an individual, create an enjoyable exchange, reduce challenging behaviour, and develop communication skills.

Whatever method you use it is really important to spend time observing a child with severe communication delay. Often there are many subtle attempts at communication that go unnoticed. It is crucial to try and pick up these attempts at communication and try to understand their meaning. There is a belief that if these attempts at communication go unnoticed for too long, the child may give up trying to communicate. With non-verbal children, focus on body movements and make a note of any vocalizations. Video the child and watch it back, often you will see new things you had not noticed before. Look at the triggers of movement and vocalization – what made John wave his hand, or Jane smile? By keeping a running record you may begin to see that certain things elicit certain responses – what did the child do when he was upset, what did he do when he wanted more? This can be your starting point for communication. By learning the child’s responses you can learn their system of communication.

For more information about special needs and other communication difficulties, and ideas and strategies to help communication, see our Resources, or for specific fact-sheets with helpful hints about Special Needs and alternative communication options, go to the Downloads section.


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