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Maximising Communication 

Communication is really about sharing messages in the best way possible. The key is finding ways to help your relative understand other people and for you and others to find the best ways of understanding their communication. It is about focusing on what your relative can do and is doing (rather than what they are not). 

Video: "Supporting good communication"

Communication is important for everyone and we all communicate in a range of ways. People with learning disabilities often experience communication difficulties but still have important messages to express. Communication is not just about people speaking and signing. It can also be about using objects and pictures, special devices, facial expression, body language and other gestures and sounds - these are just some examples.

When people’s communication options are limited, life can become very frustrating and there is an increased likelihood of behaviours that challenge and other emotional difficulties. The changes caused by COVID-19 could mean that your relative is experiencing more difficulties than usual (e.g. they might have less access to their usual communication systems - such as visual schedules) and so may need some extra support in this regard. Here are some different areas to consider:

Building on Existing Communication Systems

Try to ensure you are carrying on with all the effective communication tools your relative has previously had in place. Many schools and services closed quite quickly.  This might mean that whatever support for communication used in those settings did not come back with your relative.  Try to get these supports sent to you if possible.  This might be a list of key communication strategies or some visual supports or a different sort of communication aid. ​

Helping Your Relative Understand Your Communication

Lots of things are different right now, including key people, key activities and key events. These changes can be difficult to communicate to someone with a learning disability. You can help support your relative to better understand the messages you and others are trying to communicate to them by doing these things:


Having a positive intention to communicate, calm expression and relaxed body posture.  This can be really hard, particularly when you or they are feeling anxious or worried.  Exploring the ‘Looking after you’ section might be helpful for supporting your own wellbeing if you find yourself feeling like this.   


Gaining your relative’s attention before you try to communicate anything (e.g. get to their eye level, turn down music or TV…). Making sure you have their attention in the way that best works for them.  If your relative is absorbed in something they may need a little time to turn their attention to you. 


Making links between what you are trying to communicate and the environment (e.g. point to what you are talking about, show them what you are talking about, use a visual cue).


Using a small number of clear and simple words or gestures. Try not to rush.  Less is often more here! When things are particularly difficult - make communication as simple as possible.



Being consistent (use same words / gestures each time you communicate the same message).



Allowing your relative time to try and understand what you are communicating.  As far as possible, check they have understood.    

Video: "Reducing demands of communication"

Considering different communication methods can also help make things clearer. Here are some more ideas to try:


Build links between objects and activities.  Would your relative recognise things like putting their shoes on is likely to mean going out?  Would they realise that getting a cup out of the cupboard is likely to mean that it is time for a drink?  You might be able to identify a set of objects that can be used as cues for particular activities - for example, showing a towel when it is time for a shower. 


Pictures and symbols. Can your relative recognise pictures?  Do they need the image to look exactly the same as the thing it represents (e.g. a photo) or can it be a drawing/symbol?  Pictures can be used to give people information - for example, having a picture of a bed to indicate bedtime.


Signs and gestures. Some signs are easier to learn and understand - for example, the signs that look like what they represent such as the sign for ‘drink’.  Try using it just before you offer a drink and when your relative is having a drink.


Words.  What are the key words your relative understands?  Some people might struggle with lots of words but might be able to understand a few, very familiar words, for example, words for specific people or places.  Try to use these consistently and with emphasis.  For example, whatever term you use for toilet should be consistent. Rather than having 2 or 3 versions ('loo', 'bathroom', etc.) select just one.  Are there other key words you might be able to use? 

Supporting your relative to communicate 

Understanding what and how your relative communicates is often not easy. They might have few or no words or formal signs and mostly express themselves through other means. Family carers are, however, often the people best placed to find this out. This means being like a detective to try and focus on what your relative is trying to indicate (by their words, expression, behaviours). ​


In times of stress and anxiety, we all find communication harder, so it might be that your relative is finding it harder to communicate at the moment. This also makes it harder for you, but try to:

1. Use your expert knowledge of what they are most likely to be thinking/feeling/needing.  What is your relative most likely to be communicating at the time?

2. Use your expert knowledge about the ways in which your relative expresses themselves.   They will always be trying to get a message across in the best way that they can. 

There are LOTS of ways your relative might be able to express their message.  To figure out the ways they do this you might also ask yourself questions like this:


Body movements - does your relative seem to move more or less when they are interested in something or when they don’t like something?


Eye gaze, pointing and leading - is your relative able to show interest in something by looking at it or pointing to it?


Sounds – does your relative seem to vocalise more or less in different situations?  Is there a pattern?  Can we use their vocalisations to better understand when they like or don’t like something?


Signs and gestures – does your relative use any formal signs or gestures?  Does everyone understand these? Can you record any more unusual gestures that they use?


Visual communication – does your relative use any visual forms of communication?  What are the key objects, photos, pictures, symbols?  Are there any that you could introduce that would help?


Words – does you relative use any speech?  What are their key words and phrases?  Does everyone understand what your relative means when they use these key words or phrases?

Key messages

There are some things we all need to be able to communicate. Knowing how your relative expresses these messages can be very useful. Can you discover how your relative expresses these messages by their signs, gestures, words, body movements, facial expressions, sounds or other acts?

What might you notice about your relative if they:

  • were in pain or discomfort;

  • needed you or another person;

  • wanted to be alone;

  • wanted something they liked or to keep doing something they liked;

  • did not like or did not want to do something;

  • needed to know something.

  • Wanted to tell you something

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