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Overview of Communication Styles for Special Needs Learners

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 1/6/2012

Excellent communication skills rarely come naturally, instead they are set of abilities that have been learned and refined over time. Students with special needs may need particular help developing an appropriate communication style.

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    Social Needs

    There are three main approaches for communicating a message; aggressive, passive and assertive. Ideally we want to teach our special needs learners to be assertive communicators. This means helping them build a set of skills that will encourage them to deliver their message clearly and concisely, and with enough politeness that it will be well accepted and listened to in a social situation.

    Social and daily living activities such as going shopping, ordering a meal, asking for help in a clothing store, using a bank, visiting friends, going to the movies or making a complaint about poor service are all everyday tasks.

    For a special needs learner, these situations can involve communicating with people who do not understand their own role in the communication activity. They may try to speak for a special needs learner, assume they cannot hear or need extra special help, or try to do things for them without asking.

    In many cases, the learner with special needs has to have communication skills which can deal with these sorts of people confidently and without causing enormous offense. Ideally if they can leave the other person with a sense of ‘wow – I’m impressed by how well that young person handled themselves then’, they have done well.

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    Aggressive Approach

    This approach involves overly strong and forceful communication. Sometimes body language is used to intimidate, such as when arms are folded, the face is set in a frown or scowl, and the body stance is forward facing and direct. Arms may wave and hands may be used for gesturing. Voice is often deep in pitch, rapid in speed and loud. The main message here is ‘I want to win and control.’

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    Passive Approach

    This approach is where a person allows themselves to be intimidated by another person, and shows their feelings through voice and body language. Body position is often faced away from the other person, with arms folded across the body for a feeling of protection. The voice is usually soft and may be mumbled or hard to hear. The main message in this approach is ‘I give in to you because I am fearful.’

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    Assertive Approach

    This approach is a neat balance between the two earlier ones. An assertive approach has open, direct body language, with some gesturing but not to the point of aggression. Voice is clear and easy to hear, but not raised in pitch or speed. Manner and demeanour is confident and calm. The main unspoken message in this approach is ‘firm and polite’.

    Most often, this is the ideal approach to communicating. Explain these three types to your student and help them see why the assertive approach is best. Spend some time going over the characteristics of this approach so the student can begin practicing it on their own.