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News & Blog » The Challenge of Non-Verbal Communication

The Challenge of Non-Verbal Communication

Published on 10th Jul 2017
Encompass Blog and Updates

Learning disabilities bring with them a great many challenges.

Some a physical, some are developmental.

Whatever the individual faces, they have to adapt and cope as best they can to a world inherently ill-suited to them. This can lead to feelings of low worth, isolation and marginalisation.

Fortunately help is available in the form of products and services that empower the individual to lead a fulfilling life.

However, where things get really challenging is communication.

Individuals who cannot communicate verbally can often struggle to be understood. There are issues around independence, empowerment and abuse as decisions can be made on their behalf that flies in the face of their actual wishes.

But if only 7% of communication is verbal, why is non-verbal communication such a challenge?


Whilst only 7% of communication is verbal, it gives the other 93% of communication a context.

Pointing in the direction of a single item on a shelf full of choices, from five feet away gives the individual and the carer a dozen different instances to become frustrated with one another.

Also the difference between being able to ask someone for a box of cereal and pointing at it cannot be understated.

This is, of course, making the assumption that the individual possesses the fine motor skills to point in the first place.

The absence of understanding – which can flow both ways – means that people supporting the individual either make assumptions or simply ignore them.

 This presents a real problem as it runs rough shot over both the individual’s rights and their dignity.

learning together


There are many different reasons why someone is non-verbal.

They may not be able to speak due a physical disability or through a learning disability they are unable to form sentences, despite (in both instances) the individual possessing a full understanding of the words or symbols they are seeing.

For some individuals they are unable to understand written language or symbols but can understand spoken words and make associations.

Regardless, they rely on carers or their support circle to understand what they are trying to communicate.

This means patience on the part of the carer, attentiveness as the individual could be relying heavily on gestures and body language to be understood, and adaptability.

This means using every tool at their disposal: the individual is relying on them to be the conduit to the wider world.

The Toolbox

The reality is that what there is no single best way to communicate with someone who is non-verbal as needs will vary wildly from one person to the next.

Some prefer one-to-one, face-to-face communication. Others sign language.

Some individuals with severe learning disabilities are deaf or blind. Or both.

Devising ways to allow someone to experience the world that is otherwise closed off to them is a vitally important to their standard of living.

Mencap recommend 10 tips to effective communication.

1. Find a good place to communicate in

Somewhere quiet without distractions. If you are talking to a large group be aware that some people may find this difficult.

2. Ask open questions

Questions that don’t have a simple yes or no answer.

3. Check with the person that you understand what they are saying

“The TV isn’t working? Is that right?”

4. If the person wants to take you to show you something, go with them.

Even if you know what they mean, your understanding is important to them.

5. Watch the person

They may tell you things by their body language and facial expressions.

6. Learn from experience

You will need to be more observant and don’t feel awkward about asking parents or others for their help.

7. Try drawing

Even if you’re drawing is not great it might still be helpful. Codification happens early on in a person’s life so simple drawings can be an effective way of communication.

8. Take your time, don’t rush your communication.

It's important that you slow down so they feel like they have your attention.

9. Use gestures and facial expressions.

If you are asking if someone is unhappy make your facial expression unhappy to reinforce what you are saying.

10. Be aware that some people find it easier to use real objects to communicate but photos and pictures can really help too.

Building an archive of visual aides specific to the person can really help with understanding.

All communication is meaningful and how we respond to an individual with our body language, tone and facial expressions is going to directly impact on how they feel. It is our responsibility as carers or as a member of the individuals support circle to work hard to understand them and be understood in return.