Communicating with and for people with learning disabilities

Communication is vital in ensuring that people can express themselves and make sense of the world around them.

This is equally if not more important when that person has a learning disability and may not be able to interpret their environment as easily as others.

There are various forms and stages of communication.

Expressive language

Expressive language is the use of words to form sentences in order to communicate with other people. 

Difficulties in using expressive language to communicate can range from experiencing difficulties putting words in the right order or writing sentences, to being unable to form words in a meaningful way that others can understand. 

When someone is unable to make use of expressive language, this can lead to frustration at not being able to explain themselves, difficulty interacting with other people, and difficulty expressing their needs.

Receptive language

Receptive language is the understanding of expressive language. The use of receptive language is not dependent on being able to use expressive language. Some people may not be able to form words and sentences themselves, but are able to understand expressive language when it is used by others.

This can range from being able to easily understand what others say, to being able to only understand key words and phrases, and then only when they are spoken clearly and slowly. Everyone is different; some people may be able to use both receptive and expressive language to different degrees, whilst others may be able to use one or neither.

Communication techniques

Some people with learning disabilities have difficulties communicating with others when solely making use of expressive and receptive language. 

There are a variety of other techniques which have been developed to help support people for whom speech is difficult, for example:

  • Communication systems such as Widgit, Makaton (based on British sign language), PECS (Picture Exchange communication system)
  • Easy read symbols
  • Speech and language therapy

People with learning disabilities often interpret body language and non-verbal communication in understanding simple everyday interactions. 

It is essential when communicating with someone with a learning disability to give them time to take in what is being said, and to communicate more slowly than you may normally in order to allow them to process what it is that you are communicating.

It is often hard to know what support is available to help people with learning disabilities communicate more easily.

Using visual guides or cues to aide communication is one important way of supporting people to have a greater understanding of what is being conveyed to them. 

One technique which can be helpful in everyday life is creating any materials or information in a more accessible format (this is often called easy read). Making something easy read involves breaking the text down into small sentences, and using images or symbols to convey what is being said in the text.


For people who work with or support people with learning disabilities, it is important to make sure that you are communicating in a way that is accessible for the recipient.Having information in easy read, using large font sizes and using simple language can be effective.

Often if a child with a learning disability is identified as having a severe barrier to communicating they will be offered help through their school, GP or through social services.

If, however, either you or the person you support is not receiving the support they need to communicate effectively, see the right hand column for some useful resources able to provide advice.