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Enhancing Communication for Young People with Learning Disabilities

  • By Abi Hart
  • 9th May 2023

Having a learning disability can make communicating and processing information more difficult than it is for a non-disabled person. Therefore, it is important to know about the different ways to communicate with children, young adults or adults with learning disabilities. There are a few ways that you can enhance your communication in order to support people with learning difficulties.


Makaton is a language program that uses a combination of sign, symbols and spoken words to support communication. It is designed to help people with communication difficulties, including learning disabilities, autism and other conditions. You may know it from Mr Tumble on Cbeebies! Makaton can be used to help individuals express themselves, understand language and interact with others in a more effective and meaningful way. The use of Makaton can also help promote social inclusion, reduces frustration and anxiety related to communication difficulties.

It is UK’s leading language programme, research as shown that signs and gestures are easier to learn than spoken words. Makaton has helped children and adults with Autism, Developmental Language Disorder, Down’s syndrome, Global Developmental Delay, Multi-sensory impairments, Verbal Dyspraxia and Clef lip & Palate. At Leeds Mencap we run a subsidized ‘Introduction to Makaton’ course for parents at various time of the year. In order to make our course affordable to our families we offer this course at s cheaper price than a standard Makaton course. If you are interested in learning Makaton please contact us on info@leedsmencap.org.uk. Explore official resources and accredited training on the Makaton Charity website.

PECS – Picture Exchange Communication System

PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System, it is a form of communication used to help individuals with communication difficulties, particularly those with Autism or other developmental disorders, to communicate their needs and wants. It involves the use of pictures or symbols that the individual can exchange with a communication partner to convey their message. The goal of PECS is to give individuals the ability to initiate communication, which can lead to increased social interaction, independence and overall quality of life.

Objects of Reference

An object of reference is a whole physical object, or part of an object that you hold or touch to represent a person, an object, a place, an activity, or an idea. Objects of reference are a useful way to communicate if you have sight loss, hearing loss, multi-sensory impairment, autism spectrum disorder, learning disability or short/long term memory difficulties. Objects of reference are helpful for parents, family members, friends, therapists, and school staff to use to communicate with people with complex disabilities. It’s good to start with a few objects for activities that happen often or for people you see all the time, regular repetition with a few objects makes it easier to make the connections between the object and its meaning.

Visual Timetables

A visual timetable, timeline or visual activity schedule is a way of supporting a child to predict what will happen next. It enables children to know the things that must happen first, before they can do the activity that they are often focused on. It helps children who have difficulty understanding languages as it gives them extra processing time. Using symbols and visual timelines as part of a multisensory teaching approach helps children become more independent. It benefits children’s thinking skills by making other people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions more concrete. It puts less demand on remembering and allows more resources for thinking about the task and identifying the ‘goal’ of the task where it might be hard to complete.

How do I start using a communication aid?

  1. Meet your child where they are. The introduction of a new system will take lots of patience, consistency and repetition. Start with just one or two motivating symbols or signs to engage your child in the system, and introduce new symbols or signs gradually.
  2. Remember communication is a two-way street. These aids aren’t only to help you communicate with your child, but for your child to communicate with you!
  3. Consider how to make the system as helpful and motivating for your child as possible. For example, accompany visual timetables with a sand timer, or encourage your child to remove completed tasks from the board themselves.
  4. Always accompany these with language! These are all communication aids and are not intended to replace speech, rather they should support your child’s development. It’s essential that speech is used alongside Makaton, and many people will just sign key words from a spoken sentence. Visual timetables should be accompanied by simple language to support understanding. Many people choose a ‘now’ and ‘next’ format to convey the meaning of the board. For example, repeating the simple phrase “Now, brush teeth. Next, play outside.”
  5. Speak to your child’s school or nursery setting. Teachers or SENCO should have knowledge on your child’s ability, readiness to engage with a new communication system as well as knowledge and experience of implementing them. Consistent communication tools across home and school will help support your child’s engagement.

Additional Support and Resources

Sign up to become a Leeds Mencap Member for free to access downloadable communication card packs and additional resources.

Leeds Community Health Care Speech and Language Team

Royal Mencap’s information about communication

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