Section IV: Communication

In this section, you will learn more about communication. The types of communication, pitfalls in communicating, and the use of behavior to communicate are discussed.


We usually think of communication as speaking or writing, but the definition of communication also includes information back and forth between people through a system of signs, or behaviors like gestures, body language and actions. Actions are things like smiling, laughing, kicking, head banging, or even hurting oneself. All people have the need to communicate to express choice, feelings, emotions, needs, likes and dislikes.

Everyone communicates in some way. Some people use words to communicate, however, we do not need to use only words to communicate. We use behaviors to communicate with facial expressions (smiles, frowns, eye blinking), pointing or other physical gestures, vocal sounds, eye contact, body movements, or with our actions or behaviors.

For example, if you give someone broccoli and she makes a grimace or spits them out, that person is communicating that she does not like it. If you give a person ice cream and he smiles and gestures for more, he is communicating that he does like it. People may communicate through signs, symbols, behaviors, or by using an iPad or other assistive technology. Although some people may not use words to communicate, it does not mean that they cannot understand what others are saying. Intellectual or physical challenges may be the reason some people lack the ability to talk, but it does not mean that they do not understand what’s happening around them.

TYPES of Communication

Communication works two ways: expressing information (expressive skills) or receiving information (receptive skills). Expressive communication means talking or communicating in any form and receptive communication means understanding what someone is trying to tell you. Expressive communication refers to how people “share or express” information. Receptive communication refers to how people “receive” information, or “what information they take in.” 

Some people cannot speak (expressive skills), but may understand what is being said to them (receptive skills). Some individuals can speak clearly and are easily understood (expressive skills), yet may not understand what is said to them (receptive skills).   

ABILITY to Communicate

Some people have trouble using words to communicate because of physical (e.g., a hearing or motor impairment) or genetic factors related to their intellectual or other developmental disability. Sometimes medications affect verbal communication, and when medications are changed, the ability to communicate may reappear. Sometimes a brain injury can affect someone’s ability to communicate. People’s ability to speak language can appear at any age; therefore we should not assume language stops developing at a certain age.

As a DSP, you need to pay close attention to all forms of communication. People who communicate without using language usually develop a way to express their likes and dislikes, ask for things and show pleasure, displeasure, pain, or unhappiness through movements and behaviors. Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out what someone is trying to communicate, and you need to think like a detective to decode what they are trying to say with their behavior.

Pitfalls to Avoid When Communicating

  1. Do not shout. Speak in a normal tone, as you would to your boss or someone you know. Some people with disabilities are hearing impaired, but most are not. Loud voices can be startling for some people. If you have a loud voice, be aware that you may need to lower your volume.
  2. Do not talk or act like a parent. If you were asking your boss for something, would you yell out an order? Ask the person to perform a task. Become a role model using good manners. Do not issue orders. Treat people with respect regardless of age or ability.
  3. Do not say you understand if you do not. That will only frustrate the person. Apologize and remind them that you are trying to understand them and do not give up. Ask a co-worker or someone who knows the personwell for assistance.
  4. Do not rush the person. Some people take longer than others to form their thoughts and words. Give the person more time to process what you are saying before asking again.

The Role of Behaviors in Communication

A person’s behaviors, even ones that we don’t like, are attempts to communicate. If you can’t make yourself understood, or to feel that no one is paying attention to your requests, you might become so frustrated that you use challenging behaviors. Knowing what you want and being unable to express it to others is an endless battle for people with limited or poor expressive skills. Think about how you might behave if others could not understand you.

As a DSP, it is your responsibility to listen to words and behaviors and help the people you support find appropriate