How to Communicate with a Mentally Challenged Person

Three Methods:Understanding ThemBeing ClearBeing Friendly and Accommodating

The ability to communicate with people whose speech is affected by a mental disability is actually a skill that can be developed over time with practice. Whether you deal with mentally challenged speakers often or rarely, this advice will help you to communicate more effectively and smoothly.

Method 1
Understanding Them

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    Don't assume that someone has an intellectual disability based on the ease of their speech. Some people who have difficulty speaking, such as people with cerebral palsy and some autistic people, are on average just as smart as anyone else. A disability accent, slow speech, or halting speech doesn't always mean an intellectual disability.
    • People who can't speak can be of any intelligence level.
    • Body language does not relate to intelligence either. Looking away while listening, and fidgeting constantly, are typical autistic traits. Don't assume that this means they aren't paying close attention, or that they can't understand.
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    Accept their quirks. Disabled people may do things that society considers unusual: making sounds, flopping to the ground when frustrated, flapping their hands, running in circles, echoing phrases, pacing constantly, and more. Most of this behavior serves a purpose—calming themselves down, communicating their needs, expressing feelings, or simply having fun. Recognize that it's okay to be different, and that there's no need to worry about behavior that doesn't hurt anyone.
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    Recognize that ability varies from day to day.[1] Stress, sensory overload, lack of sleep, how hard they pushed themselves this morning, and other factors can determine how easy it is for someone to communicate and perform other tasks. If they are having a harder time today than they did yesterday, remember that they aren't doing this on purpose, and work on being patient.
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    Ask questions if you don't understand their wording. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities may not word things in the same way as people without disabilities. Their wording might not make sense to you. Instead, ask them questions to clarify what they're trying to say.[2]
    • For example, if your friend asks "Where's the thing?" then ask questions about what type of thing they mean (a little thing? what color? a cell phone?).
    • Sometimes, they might be searching for a word. For example, if they're asking about food, and there are many types of food, then start narrowing it down. Maybe they're saying "food" when they want to ask about strawberries.
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    If you don't know, ask. It's absolutely okay to ask "How can I accommodate you?" or "Are there any parts of your disability that I should be aware of?" Most people would rather have you ask them than assume who they are or what they need. As long as you're well-meaning and respectful, it'll be fine.
    • If you want to know how to handle a specific situation, ask them.[3] For example, "I notice that sometimes when we meet new people, they have a hard time understanding you and you can be left out. How do you want me to handle this?"
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    Don't give up on them. When speaking to a person who has a disability accent, some people ask "what did you say?" once and then let their eyes glaze over and pretend to listen.[4] Keep trying to connect. Make it clear that what they have to say is important to you.
    • A useful phrase is "I'm having trouble understanding you, but I care about what you're saying."[5][6]
    • If verbal communication is too hard, try texting, typing on a tablet, writing, using sign language (if you know it), or another form of alternative communication.[7] Work with them to figure out what is best.
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    Find conversation topics that interest them. Ask about their day, their favorite book or TV show, their interests, or their family and friends. This will help you get to know them, and you might make a new friend!

Method 2
Being Clear

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    Speak calmly, clearly, and with a moderate volume. Enunciate well, and focus on clarity. Speaking louder doesn't make you more understandable. Consider this an opportunity to work on your clarity of speech.
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    Model your vocabulary usage after theirs. If they say the word "gigantic," then they probably also know what "enormous" and "huge" mean. If they speak using basic words, then it's probably best to use the smallest words you know. If they use words like "fortuitously" and "systematic bias," then their disability probably isn't intellectual.
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    Avoid long and complex sentences if needed. If the person seems to struggle understanding speech, keep your sentences short and clear. Use simple subject-verb-object statements when you can.
    • This is good practice in general too. Non-disabled people don't enjoy wading through extremely long sentences either.
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    Let them see your mouth. If the person is hard of hearing or struggles to process speech, they may want to watch you as you pronounce your words. This helps them figure out what you are saying in many cases. Avoid turning away as you speak, covering your mouth, or speaking with your mouth full.
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    Avoid running words together. For example, the question "Do-ya wanna eat-a pizza?" may be difficult for them to understand. One of the biggest challenges for listeners is knowing where one word ends and the next one begins. If they seem to be struggling, slow down the pace a little, giving a slight pause between each word.
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    Don't mimic their disability accent, in a misguided presumption that they will "understand" if you speak like they do. This does not make you easier to understand. It will confuse your listener and may give the wrong impression about your sensitivity to their disability.

Method 3
Being Friendly and Accommodating

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    Let the pace slow down as needed. If their speech is halting or labored, it may take them more time to get through a sentence. Give them utter patience, and don't rush them to finish what they're saying. This takes the pressure off and makes them feel more at ease.[8]
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    Use open body language. Show them that you're interested in what they're saying by looking at them, and making eye contact if they're comfortable with it.
    • Remember that they may have different listening body language than you do. If you aren't sure whether they're paying attention, watch to see if they react to what you say (e.g. giggling when you compliment them, asking questions) or just ask them.
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    Deal with negative emotions in non-aggressive ways. Due to social uncertainty, past mistreatment, or abuse-related PTSD, some disabled people may feel scared and confused if you are angry or hostile towards them. If you're getting very upset, take some deep breaths and try saying "I need some alone time" so you can handle your emotions privately.
    • Take some quiet time. If you need to speak to them to address the issue, wait until you are able to handle it with a level head. They won't be able to listen well if they are scared or confused by your strong emotions.
    • If the disabled person does something that upsets you, communicate it calmly and clearly. Try using "I" language in the template "When you ______, I feel _____."
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    Be patient. They are facing barriers beyond your comprehension, and that can make conversation difficult. Never yell at a disabled person, or blame them for their disability.
    • If you find yourself feeling frustrated, disengage. Go for a walk, do something else, or say "I need some alone time for a little while."
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    Accommodate their needs. If you notice that they seem distressed, ask them "Is something wrong?" and "Is there anything I can do to help?" For example, a disabled person might feel distracted by all the movement in a crowded restaurant, and prefer to eat at an outdoor table where there are less people. People can talk much better when their needs are being met.
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    Relax. Disabled people are people like anyone else, and can be fun to talk to and befriend.


  • Ask questions along the way. Have you tried this? Do you ever feel angry or happy like that? I picked strawberry flavor, what is your favorite flavor? It helps a person with an intelligence handicap to understand by connecting your experience to their life.
  • Remember that disabled people are still people. They still have feelings, and deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. Don't ridicule them, treat them like an inferior, or use a superior or unsympathetic tone. They can tell.
  • Be aware that you must listen and observe the person you are speaking to. In most cases communicating with a person with a disability is very much like learning how to understand an accent or different language. Be ready to adjust your communication style in a respectful way when necessary.
  • Try not to care that they have a mental disability. It really helps to develop your friendship with them.


  • Not being able to speak is not the same as having nothing to say.
  • Understand that people with disabilities are still heavily discriminated against, and even people who work with those with disabilities might not realize ways that they violate the dignity and respect for the person that they would not do to someone who was not disabled.
    • People with disabilities are no more violent than the rest of the population. Violent outbursts usually come from people forcing them to do something they do not want to do, or a history of abuse. It may be self-defense, an abuse symptom, or due to an inability to communicate in a way people understand/pay attention to.
    • Even semi-autonomous people often have their ideas, choices, and preferences preempted by people who think they are not capable of doing anything for themselves. Imagine if you were capable of making reasonable choices and decisions but someone was always making these decisions for you without your input.
    • Disabled people are sometimes told that they "aren't disabled enough" to need help, and then their needs are ignored. This also happens when they try to advocate for disability rights—they "aren't disabled enough" to understand how "tragic" and "low-functioning" disabled people are.
    • Do not say to them that they are mentally defective. Instead, presume competence and encourage them to learn and grow.

Article Info

Categories: Disability Issues | Speaking and Listening Skills