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Special Needs: Communication With Adults With Intellectual Developmental Disabilities

Updated on June 16, 2015

Why Should I Listen To You?

I work a part time job as a residential assistant for adults with intellectual, behavioral, and physical disabilities. I have worked with people on every part of the spectrum. I've been with the highest functioning, who are part of the normal workforce and unless you knew them very well you would never know they were different. And I've helped the lower functioning, who can lack even basic speech and cognition skills, but are still some of the sweetest people I've ever met. I've far from seen it all, but I have seen a lot and for a long time.

Why Does This Apply to Me?

According to the US Census, 6.3 percent of US citizens have some sort of mental disability. That means that 1 in 16 people you know has some kind of mental disability. 1 in 16 family members. 1 in 16 friends. This doesn't mean a severe disability, but enough to report on a census.

This also applies to you because of that guy you ran into in the grocery store who didn't seem entirely normal, or that group home you just found out was down the street from your house. There is no one ho shouldn't read this, because there is no one who will never run into a person who is intellectually different from them.

One in Sixteen People Have an Intellectual Disability


Should I Approach This Person?

Are you in a grocery store or other public place? If so, probably not. Basically, even though your curiosity might drive you to do otherwise, just carry on with your business as though they were any other shopper or patron. If the person approaches you, then carry on a conversation only as far as you would with anyone else. In this situation, it is probably not appropriate to ask about their disability, but if they bring it up, you can ask questions.

Are you at a party of family reunion or social event that you are a part of? Then yes, it's totally OK to start a conversation. But again, start a conversation as you would any other. Again, asking about a disability is usually not OK unless they bring it up.

Location is Everything


Having a Conversation

Having a conversation with a person with intellectual differences can be challenging, with the sudden changes in topic, the speech and general communication struggles they might be having, and the social boundaries they may not be aware of. Sudden changes in topic, you just have to try to follow along. It's completely okay to say you got lost and ask them to backtrack, or ask them to explain, but you should say it in a way that puts the emphasis on you being lost, not them being fast or random. For example, Instead of "Slow down, you're going too fast." say "Slow down, I can't keep up." As far as speech and communication difficulties, I'm still working on that one myself. Essentially, it's the same, ask them to slow down and repeat, but acknowledge that it is your fault, not theirs. Social boundaries are the most fun struggle, but can also be the most challenging to deal with. Imagine an adult running into you and your significant other and blatantly asking how often you have sex, and you'll begin to understand the humor but also the struggle. And yes, it is okay to laugh when this happens, in fact it is helpful because in most cases it shows the person that they were out of line, but not in a persecuting way. The best way to deal with this is in fact not by treating them like any other person, it is by treating them like a young child. If a line is crossed, calmly explain why that isn't okay to say, but don't yell or get offended. If the person is on the high functioning end, feel free to call them out, you can usually gauge your reaction by the way they ask the question. If they ask like an over-informed 5-10 year old, respond as such. If they ask like a nosy 15 year old, respond as such. But don't ever take it personally, with anyone, disabilities or not, taking offensive things to heart is a waste of energy.

Someone Is Acting Out Near or At Me

I'd like to start this part by explaining that this will probably never ever happen to you. However, I have seen it happen to enough people from the other side of the mess that I feel the need to inform you what to do. So don't be jumpy and thinking this happens all the time, because it doesn't. But it does happen, so here is what you do.

You know how sometimes children have meltdowns in the supermarket and the parent is mortified, the shoppers are annoyed or don't know how to help, and the kid is loving the attention. It is the same principle. I know you want to help when a grown person is sitting on the floor of the store screaming profanities, and their helper is looking helpless, but in most cases, the more attention you give that person, the worse it will be. If you are in a situation where you are escorting a person and they act out, don't yell, don't escalate it, and don't give ultimatums. What you do is calmly deescalate the situation, usually with humor, or with higher functioning individuals, reason. Bribery will help in the short term, but will make it worse in the long run, but sometimes it is worth it, just don't make it a habit.

Have you ever had this happen to you?

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    • kbdressman profile image


      3 years ago from Harlem, New York

      Great hub! If we'd all learn to focus on what we have in common instead of what is different between us, communicating with those who aren't clones of ourselves (which would be everyone...) would be a lot easier!

    • RTalloni profile image


      3 years ago from the short journey

      Sharing valuable experience so others can learn from it shows that you care a lot about adults with disabilities. Thank you for your efforts to them and for helping others understand them better.


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