Guide to Communicating with Adults with a Learning Disability

A learning disability can make it difficult for people to make their thoughts and feelings known. Behaviours described as challenging are often the result of someone being unable to communicate what they want or need.

Anyone can learn to be a better communicator. In this short guide, you’ll find some of our top tips for communicating with adults with a learning disability. Remember that everyone is unique and never assume how a person would like to communicate. When in doubt, try asking the person about their preferences first.

How to Communicate with Someone Who Has a Learning Disability

Here are some tips on how you can communicate more effectively with someone who has a learning disability:

Make time and space to talk

Making yourself understood isn’t always easy when you have a learning disability. So, make the most of interactions by ensuring, when possible, that they take place in a quiet and calm place, with as few distractions as possible. This gives both parties the time and space to understand what the other person is trying to say. It’s important to consider that some people don’t feel comfortable speaking in large groups.

Go over what has already been said

Be sure to let the person know you understand what they are saying – or make it clear if you don’t understand. Repeating what has been said to clarify understanding is reassuring to the other person, letting them know that their message has been heard. Allowing you to be ready to defuse any frustration or anger about not being understood.

Use accessible language

Use clear and accessible language that is easy to understand. Avoid jargon or long words that could be confusing. Try to communicate at the same pace as the person you are talking with and take the time to stop and check with them to make sure you have understood what they are trying to say. Communicating is about listening, not just talking!

Be aware that some people may prefer other methods of communicating. For instance, they may find it easier to express their thoughts and ideas with objects or pictures. It’s important to work with the individual and find a method of communicating that allows them to make their feelings known.

Take it slowly

Set aside a block of time so you don’t have to rush. Any sign of frustration on your part will impact the other person negatively, so do everything you can to make it easier for them to communicate. Perhaps they could draw you a picture? Or maybe they could take you and show you what they’re trying to convey? Try to think outside the box to make it easier for them to get their message across.

Use facial expressions and hand gestures

Think about the way you express yourself when communicating with someone with a learning disability. Exaggerated facial expressions and dramatic hand gestures can all help to get a message across more effectively than using words alone. If one approach doesn’t seem to be working, try something different – the onus is on you to try to understand what’s being conveyed.

Since many people are now wearing face masks, some people may no longer be able to rely on facial expressions to try and communicate. Additional verbal and gesture-based communication is especially important in providing people with reassurance and a sense of support.

Communicating through writing

When it comes to written communication, keeping the information clear and concise is key. Try to limit the amount of text you write and use bullet points to convey information clearly. Choose an easy-to-read font and avoid using too many colours as that can make text difficult to read.

Consider your body language and tone of voice

Remember that body language and tone of voice play a key role in communication. Try using positive non-verbal communication like smiling, using a soft tone of voice, calm gestures and a relaxed body posture. Some people with learning disabilities rely on visual cues while communicating and this can help the person feel calm and reassured.

Communication Aids that Can Help

There are many tools and technologies available that can help people engage with information in different ways and communicate more effectively. These range from practical spoken and written languages to tech devices that can help a person express their thoughts and feelings.

Here are a few of the most communication aids:


Makaton is a language programme that allows people to communicate through sounds, symbols and speech. By providing a visual cue, it makes it easier to understand the information being presented. It can be personalised to an individual’s needs and used at a level that is suitable for them.

Makaton is a visual way of communicating that helps people grow and develop their communication skills. Moving at their own pace, many people eventually grow their communication abilities to a point where they no longer need the programme to express their thoughts and ideas.


Symbols are used everywhere and they can help communicate important information quickly. Widgit is a symbol based-language that does just that – it uses small pictures either alone or with text to help people express themselves more effectively. Widgit symbols are clear, precise and suitable for all ages.

Talking mats

Talking mats are mats on which a variety of small pictures can be arranged and rearranged as required. They are a simple yet effective tool for communicating with someone with a learning disability or other communication difficulty.

Each picture is meant to provide a visual cue for different needs, thoughts and emotions so that people can communicate what matters to them. They can increase the quality of life for people with learning disabilities by giving them the tools they need to organise their thoughts and express their feelings.

Social stories

A social story is a story about everyday activities or events told through visual aids. They detail specific information relating to a situation and what to expect. Social stories were devised by Carol Gray to assist people with autism and other complex needs to understand and develop social skills.

Further Resources

The British Deaf Association provides guidance and free resources on British Sign Language.

The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities provides many helpful tools and resources including a guide on communicating with and for people with learning disabilities.

United Response offers a free guide on the Foundations of Good Support and Communication.

Person-centred Support For People with Learning Disabilities

Here at Liaise, we empower people with learning disabilities to live richer lives through one-to-one, person-centred support. Through our residential care and supported living services, people with learning disabilities can learn, work and create lifelong friendships in a positive, structured environment.

In each of our inclusive and community-based properties, we create a safe, happy and enriching environment for people with learning disabilities. Every week we offer a full spectrum of engaging services and activities tailored to the needs and capabilities of the people we support.

Our goal is to provide positive living services designed to enrich the lives of the people we support. To find out more about how we can help your family, call us on 0330 500 5050 or fill out our enquiry form.