Intellectual Disability and early communication experiences

There will be great variability in a young child’s ability to communicate depending upon the severity of the Intellectual Disability(ID). Those young children with a mild ID may develop language at a slower rate than their peers while those with a more severe ID may only develop a few words and possibly use other forms of communication such as sign language, or aided language displays. Aided language displays can be in the form of objects, photos, and in some instance symbols with the written word used to teach the young child how to communicate.


Many young children with ID use visual imagery to help them understand the world around them. Many may have difficulty in processing verbal instructions so we need to keep the amount of verbal instruction and information we give a child to a minimum initially until they grasp the meaning of language. We need to remember to provide the child with opportunities to learn, learn and over learn.

Setting up communication experiences

You can setup up many communication opportunities throughout the day for a young child with ID. By using play and the functional activities that need to occur each day you can provide many language experiences. For example:

  • The morning routine: time for breakfast ‘cereal first, then toast’ you have introduced two items and a sequence
  • Use minimal verbal instructions initially to avoid confusion: ‘clean teeth’
  • Use objects to communicate: show the toothbrush and toothpaste to indicate it is time to clean teeth
  • Use play to engage your child in non-verbal interaction: building blocks, taking turns, copying your child’s actions.
  • Begin to add language to play: ‘red block, blue block’
  • When your child points to something give it a name: child points to a ball, just say ‘ball’ when child begins to label ball, bring in a further descriptor ‘big ball’ ‘blue ball’
  • Begin to label your child’s emotions: ‘happy face’ when the child is smiling

Play and daily functions will build your child’s communication experiences regardless of whether they are a verbal or nonverbal child and this will assist them to develop their own communication system that is effective for them. If your child has a further diagnosis of a learning difficulty such as an Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) then further explicit teaching of skills may be required to develop routine by use  of a schedule to assist in keeping their focus on the task.

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