At Transitions, located near Albany, New York, we acknowledge the many challenges youth with learning disabilities face, including communication. For these young adults, actively cultivating appropriate communication skills is essential to forming relationships, having their needs met and sustaining overall wellbeing.
Among other strategies, Transitions uses the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®) to teach its students communication and social skills. PEERS® is an evidence-based social skills intervention developed at UCLA for young people with autism and other differences that affect their social skills. Through PEERS® and other social skills classes, our students learn to overcome their communication hurdles to build relationships and advocate for themselves in all aspects of their lives.
Communication Difficulties for Young Adults with Learning DisabilitiesCommunication is a two-way process; effective communication means a person is able to not only convey his or her needs and wants to others, but also understand what other people are trying to communicate. The impact a learning disability can have on one’s ability to communicate is difficult to understand if you do not suffer from a learning difference yourself.
Try to imagine:
- Not being able tell someone what you read in this article
- Not being able to find the words you want to use
- Words coming out jumbled
- Opening your mouth but no words coming out
- Others speaking for you
- Others assuming they know what you want
- Not understanding others’ words, expressions or phrases
- Not being able to join a conversation with friends
- Feeling embarrassed every time you try to communicate
It is not hard to see how struggling with communication could cause extreme frustration, which in turn could lead to challenging or problematic behaviors for youth with learning disabilities.
The situation is not hopeless, though. There are specific skills young adults with learning disabilities can learn to help them communicate better in all scenarios.
Communication Skills for Young Adults with Learning Disabilities
There is a wide range of approaches available to help young adults with learning disabilities communicate better. Based on the specific communication difficulty of the person, he or she may find some of the following skills and tools useful.
- Touch cues – This skill entails using touch to communicate a variety of things, such as touching the side of the face to indicate that it is time to eat.
- Objects of reference –This is one of the most widely used communication skills for young adults with learning disabilities. Objects can be a concrete link to language, and using ones with special meaning attached (i.e., a cup to represent having a cup of tea) can be helpful for individuals who are blind or those with dual sensory impairment. The use of objects of reference is typically taught in four stages:
- How to communicate – The process of learning to make requests through the exchange of an object with another person.
- Assigning meaning – Choosing a small number of objects to assign different meanings to.
- Discrimination – Making a conscious choice between two or more objects of reference.
- Distance – Widening the range of objects used, or making a spontaneous request.
- Signing systems – Various forms of gesture or signing, from using single signs for certain words (generally drawn from British Sign Language) to using complex signing systems to convey full sentences, can assist in communication.
- Visual strategies – Symbols, pictures and photos can be used in many different ways to help people convey and/or understand ideas, from flashcards to digital communication programs. Providing visual communication skills to young adults with learning disabilities can make a huge difference in their experience of interacting with others.
Tips for Communicating with Young Adults with Learning Disabilities
- Speak slowly – Be aware of your pace and use shorter, more concise sentences. Pausing frequently can also be helpful.
- Face the person – Avoid putting your hands in front of your mouth
- Be aware of the environment – Pick a quiet place, if possible. Turn off anything that might be adding to background noise (radios, fans, etc.).
- Avoid idioms and jargon – Idioms such as “she gave him the cold shoulder” tend to be difficult to understand for many people with learning disabilities, as they often take them literally. Use plain language.
- Be aware of your tone and body language – Difference in tone and/or nonverbal cues and gestures can complicate understanding a message for a person with a learning disability.
- Rephrase and repeat – Those with learning differences may need you to say things again or require more time to process what you have said. Be patient and open to restating and repeating things.
To find out more about our Transitions programs near Albany, New York, and how they can help the young adult in your life make more friends and express themselves better, contact us at (518)775-5384.
About the Author: Jennifer Feagles, LMSW, is the director of Transitions and an instructor in Wellness and Social Skills. Jennifer is a wellness coach trained by the Mayo Clinic, a Personal Outcomes Measures interviewer certified through the Council on Quality and Leadership, and a certified instructor in the Health Matters program and the PEERS® social skills program. Her nearly 20 years of experience in working with people with varying disabilities equips her to help young people overcome their challenges and achieve their goals effectively.