Speak my Language

I recognised how far that we had come in terms of relating to young people with disabilities , when we were out for lunch last week in a garden centre. Both my husband and I noticed a young man with an Ability Dog – a gorgeous chocolate labrador called Sheriff. It was not clear what the young man’s disabilitiy was but he sat down at the table  close to us, waiting for the rest of his family to order and collect their food from the counter. I kept catching the dog’s eye and he only had to look at you and burst into a happy tail-wag. They made a happy, companionable scene together.

After we had eaten our lunch, my husband went up to their table to say hello to Sheriff and the family and he was asking about this Ability dog, both the yong man and his Mum answered the questions and I too went to have a chat afterwards, then we introduced Joshua to Sheriff. Now probably the dog gave him confidence, but 15 years ago, my husband would not have approached this family. When we first looked around Special Schools ten years ago, My husband was very uncomfortable around children with special needs, he did not know how to react and the experience upset him too. But now here he is having an unecessary conversation with an autistic teenager, he high-5s and dances with Joshua’s peers at his Special School disco and he has read stories to a class mate of Joshua’s, while he sat on his knee when they came to our house once. He has certainly come a long way, probably due to experience over the years.I was always more comfortable with children with disabilities but was wary of teenagers and young people, as I did not know how to be. In fact when I first volunteered at school, I confessed this discomfort to the Head, so she threw me in at the deep end and assigned me to a class of seniors who were 16+ and I learned how to adapt.

It is always interesting to me that the people who engage with Joshua when we are out and about, usually admit to having some link with disability – a sister with cerebral palsy, a brother with Downs , teaching in a special school or prehaps working with adults with learning disabilities. Those who do not have that connection, possibly find it more awkward to know how to respond and stay away. From my perspective, if you met Joshua in the streeet and wanted to engage him, these are tips that I would give you :

  • Eye contact and a smile is key, these are Joshua’s visual clues that you want to engage. Then see if he responds, he almost definitely will, as he is scanning most of the time for someone to engage with. It is helpful if you are on his level if he is in his wheelchair as eye contact is essential so that he knows you are addressing him
  • Speak to him directly – there is no need to ask my permission – he will either acknowledge you or not, if he is not in the mood
  • Speak clearly, do not confuse him with too many words and actually allow him the time to process what you are saying and process his response. Too many people are uncomfortable, so talk too quickly and they hate silence, so they fill it with their own words Joshua needs more time than most to process and to formulate his reply
  • Laughter and humour is a big part of Joshua’s communication, so he would love to feel like he was in on the joke or a tease
  • Joshua might repeat what you have said, while he is processing it. There may well be alot of repitition in your ‘conversation’ but let there be give and take, you should both take your turns at speaking and listening.
  • Joshua may well say something random in is attempt to communicate, do not read too much into that, it may just be his word of the moment and could be unrelated to what you have just asked.  At the moment he is saying “tummy” and lifting his tshirt to flash his belly at people. We have been trying to discourage that so it would be important not to encourage him by reacting too much, we try to ignore that behaviour. But it could equally be ” no way!”

It is difficult I know, but you need to comminicate with Joshua at his cognitive ability: Joshua is a tall, slim, handsome 17 year old now but he has the brain of a toddler. So most of these communication tips would work equally well for a toddler. I am not suggesting that you enage in ‘babytalk’ with him but you need to reflect that although he looks like a teenager, if you want to communicate with him successfully, you need to reognise his special differences and reflect that. But I promise you, if you were fortunate enough to meet Joshua in the streets, when he was in a fun mood, he would lift your spirits ,so it is worth investing some time into getting that interaction right.

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