Use Your Words: Best practices for communication with a person with special needs

Speak directly to the person or people with special needs.

When you are speaking to someone with special needs, it may be tempting to not talk directly to the person, but instead to their family member, translator, or caregiver. However, just as you would like to be addressed directly in a conversation, it is crucial to offer this same courtesy to someone with special needs!

Many people with special needs may not make eye contact, respond to you, or even be able to hear you. But this does not mean that they cannot understand you. Making an effort to include every person in your conversations, and even your Facebook posts and email blasts will go a long way to promote an inclusive environment for people with all abilities in your church.

Give everyone time to answer your questions.

In a fast-paced world where we can get answers almost instantly, it is hard to wait patiently for a response when you ask a question! But whether you are waiting for someone to answer a text message, or you’re in the middle of a discussion about an upcoming event, always be sure to give a person with special needs ample time to respond.

People with special needs often process information differently than their typical peers, especially if the person is young or a child. This difference means that while they may have heard you and understood you and may have already formulated a response, it could still be a few seconds or minutes until they can communicate their answer. Reassure the person that they don’t need to rush, and give yourself plenty of time to wait for their response, so no one has to answer before they are ready.

Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t.

There are lots of different types of special needs that can cause impairments or difficulties with verbal communication. Often, if you are communicating with someone who deals with this need, you may feel awkward asking them to repeat themselves for a second, third, or fourth time. You may even feel tempted to pretend you understood what the person said to save everyone from feeling too uncomfortable.

However, it is important not to pretend that you understand something or someone when you have no clue what they are trying to communicate. Ask the person to write down what they want to say, or see if you can find someone close to them to help you translate. Whatever you decide, make sure your responses are genuine and helpful - and don’t just nod along if you don’t understand.

If you’re wondering what other ideas are out there for communicating with someone with special needs, you don’t have to go far! Ask a person with special needs about the plans they have for helping you increase the quality of your communication with your entire church body.

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