How to Talk to Someone Who "Can't Talk"

Whether it is at work, school, or out in the community, it is almost a guarantee that at some point in their life, everyone will meet someone without the ability to verbally communicate. This characteristic can occur in all sorts of populations for all sorts of reasons. These populations can include individuals with autism spectrum disorder, individuals with cerebral palsy, stroke survivors, traumatic brain injury survivors, individuals with neurodegenerative disorders, and many more. Because of this variety and likelihood of a rendezvous, it is very important for everyone to know how to handle this type of interaction appropriately and pleasantly.

A common misconception is that if someone can’t talk, there is no way to communicate with them. That’s incorrect! Just because physical speech isn’t present in an individual, that doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to hear and understand you, as well as form their own thoughts, opinions, ideas, and judgments of your character. Watch yourself!

In order to avoid offending someone, here are some tips to consider when communicating with individuals who are unable to verbally communicate:

●       Always assume competence! It is very frustrating to have communication difficulties, and even more frustrating when others don’t think you are capable of something.

●       Use vocabulary, intonation, and topics that reflect the individual’s age, not their physical size or appearance. Some neurodevelopmental disabilities such as Rett syndrome or Down syndrome may cause a smaller stature, so a 10-year-old girl may physically appear to be 4 years old or younger. She’s still a 10-year-old with 10-year-old interests, so if you talk to her in your preschooler voice, she’ll most likely be unhappy. If you’ve just met someone and are unsure of their age, just do your best!

●       Pay attention to body language, particularly facial expressions. Although someone may be unable to tell you out loud that you’re scary and that they want space, a sharp glare can say a lot. Respect that!

●       Don’t use physical touch too much unless you know it is something that this individual enjoys. How would you feel if you were 15 years old and someone came up to you and kept touching your hair? Yikes.

●       Don’t talk about the person directly in front of them. This generally isn’t a thing you should do to anyone, ever, so definitely don’t do it to someone just because they can’t verbalize their annoyance. If you have questions or comments, direct your conversation toward the person! Inclusion is key.

Although these tips just scratch the surface, hopefully they will be helpful in the future. If you’re looking for more, here is a great source for communicating with individuals without the ability to speak within the clinical setting: 

Anna Hastings