Language is complicated! Each language contains over a million words! Language shapes the way we see the world, it allows us to understand what is happening around us and to share our thoughts, feelings and experiences with other people.

One of the best ways to support people to manage in situations they find tricky, is to change the way we use language and how we communicate with them. Some children and young people may have specific difficulties understanding and using language. This may have an impact on their behaviour in certain situations.

Children with neurodevelopmental profiles can struggle with many aspects of language and communication, which can be a huge source of frustration and misunderstanding. This may include difficulties: following longer instructions, understanding more abstract questions, working out what people mean, understanding when someone is joking, being able to find the right words for what they want to say, being able to hold a conversation, making sense of other people’s tone of voice and facial expression.

Follow the links below for more information about each of the different areas of language and tips for how you can support children and young people who may find these challenging.

Expressive language means the way we put words and sentences together to talk. Watch our podcast for more detailed information about what expressive language means and how you can help children and young people who find it tricky to use words and sentences to share their thoughts and ideas or take a look at the quick-fire tips below and add them to your toolkit!

Quick-Fire Toolkit

  • Try to give your child time to respond to what you have asked them. This might feel like an uncomfortable silence for you, but they might need this time to work out how to answer you in the right way.
  • Try using specific question prompts to help your child to give you more detailed information e.g. instead of asking “tell me about break time?”, try asking “who did you play with?”, “what game did you play?” instead
  • Make it visual! Sometimes words will feel too difficult for your child and they may need to find other, more visual ways of being able to communicate how they are feeling e.g. drawing, comic strips, symbols, pictures.

Pragmatic language refers to how we change the way we use spoken language and non-verbal communication like facial expressions and tone of voice for social reasons depending on the situation or who we’re talking to. For example, we use language differently when we greet people compared to when we’re asking for something, when we’re talking to our friends compared to when we’re talking to our boss at work, and we follow rules like taking turns in a conversation and staying on topic. Watch our podcast for more information about what pragmatic language means and how you can help children and young people who find this tricky or take a look at the quick-fire tips below and add them to your toolkit!

Quick-Fire Toolkit
Some young people can be very literal in their interpretation of language. This might mean that they get confused by language when it does not mean what it says e.g.

  • Phrases such as “pull your socks up”, “give me a hand”
  • Aspects of humour such as sarcasm where people might say one thing and mean something else
  • Taking things to heart that were said as a joke
  • Misinterpreting what someone meant and so taking them at their word, leading to confusion

The following can help:

  • Try and use short sentences and simple words. When people are having a tough time, using words they don’t understand or too many words can make them feel worse.
  • Try to say what you mean and think about what you say e.g. it is better to say “you need to walk” than saying “don’t run”.
  • You might need to make it clear and obvious when you are joking.
  • Try to keep information as factual as possible and don’t assume that people will automatically pick up meaning from your face or the way that you are talking.
  • Use comic strips to visually explain that people can say one thing but think something different or to unpick misunderstandings.

Individuals with neurodevelopmental profiles may also have difficulty working out other peoples’ non-verbal communication like facial expressions and tone of voice or using these to effectively communicate.

  • Try to be specific as you can with the words that you say as your child may not pick up on the extra information given from your tone or facial expression
  • Try to make facial expressions clear and obvious as it might be more difficult for your child to notice these when they are more subtle
  • Do not force your child to look at you when you are talking to them. Making direct eye contact can feel very uncomfortable for some children and can make listening to what you are saying even harder
  • Try not to assume that you child is trying to be blunt or rude on purpose if they come across as more direct in the way that they communicate. They may just be ‘saying it as they see it’
  • Check back with them first before jumping to conclusions as they may not be aware of how they have come across e.g. “I am just checking, did you mean that to sound ……”. This gives them the chance to repair the situation and can often prevent an argument developing.
  • Use comic strips i.e. stick people, talking bubbles and thinking bubbles to help your child to understand how they could manage situations differently next time.

Conversation, ‘chat’ and ‘banter’ can also be tricky. Some young people find it very difficult to express interest in topics outside of their own interest. Others might find it hard to know what to say and how to start an interaction with peers. It might also be tricky for them to wait their turn or to know when to stop talking.

  • Let your child know if/when they have said enough.
  • Visuals can help your child to understand the social rules e.g. when it is someone else’s turn to talk.
  • It might help to have a ‘chat box’ or agreed talking times so that your child knows when they are going to be able to talk about what is important to them.
  • Provide your child with specific feedback to help them to know what they did right e.g. “That was a great question – it really showed me that you had listened to what I said”, “that was brilliant waiting, now it’s your turn to talk”.
  • It might be helpful to practice conversation starters with your child – phrases and sentences that they can use to begin a conversation – if this is something that they find hard to do.
  • Help your child to understand how they can leave a conversation, if it is becoming too difficult to maintain e.g. safe phrases they can use as opposed to simply walking off if they have had enough.
  • It might be important to your child that you acknowledge their viewpoint first, even if you do not agree with them. This can help your child to feel listened to.

Receptive language means how we understand the words that other people use to communicate with us. Watch our podcast for more detailed information about what receptive language means and how you can help children and young people who find it tricky, to understand the words you use or take a look at the quick-fire tips below and add them to your toolkit!

Quick-Fire Toolkit
Some young people become quickly overloaded if you use too much language:

  • Make sure you have the young person’s attention before talking to them. Call their name and ask them to stop what they’re doing first
  • Try to break down or chunk longer instructions and give one piece of information at a time
    For example instead of saying: “Go upstairs and get your green jumper then come back down and put your new coat and shoes on”. You could say: “Go upstairs” then once they are there: “get your green jumper” then once that is done: “come down and put your coat on” then once that is done: “now put your shoes on”.
  • Give the young person enough time to process what you have said. Language is complicated. People can benefit from a bit of extra thinking time to help them process what you have said and to decide what they want to say.
  • Don’t be afraid of silences! As a general guide it can be helpful to wait for about 10 seconds before saying anything else – try counting to 10 in your head before repeating or re-phrasing.
  • Support what you have said in a visual way. Spoken language can be tricky to follow, as once it’s been said, it’s gone. Using visual reminders can be really helpful to support people to understand what has been said.

There are lots of different types of visuals you can use depending on what works best for your child or young person. Here are a few ideas:

  • You can use pointing and gestures to help you to show them what you are talking about.
  • You can use pictures as part of a schedule to show what is happening in the day. These are often called ‘visual timetables’. Simple versions of this can support people to know what is happening now and what is going to happen next.
  • Writing things down can be helpful for some people. Some people like to write lists to help them remember what they need to do. Others might prefer a text or an event reminder on their phone.