Engaging with people with complex communication needs

This content has been migrated from the Ministry of Health. It is in the process of being updated by Whaikaha - Ministry of Disabled People.

Tips to support an effective engagement process with people with complex communication needs.

General guidelines

  • People experience communication difficulties for a range of reasons, including learning/intellectual disabilities, Autism, brain injuries, cerebral palsy and motor neurone disease.
  • People experience communication difficulties differently. Some may have difficulty in understanding information, or knowing how to respond. Others may have a physical impairment related to the muscles connected to voice or speech.
  • Take the time to understand these needs – start by asking them how they prefer to communicate.
  • Speak to the person, not their support person.
  • Start by assuming a person can understand you, and then adjust your approach according to their response. For example, some people find it difficult to respond to open-ended questions. Try these first, and if you need to, move to yes or no or closed option questions. If using closed questions, consider including a ‘something else’ option, so the person is not limited to the options you have provided. For example, ask, ‘would you like a coffee, tea or something else?’
  • Some people may prefer whānau members or carers to express their preferences on their behalf, as they trust them to understand and communicate their individual needs and communication methods. Ask permission from the person to gather this information.
  • Some people with high and complex disability needs are unable to communicate or to understand the concept of giving permission for someone to communicate on their behalf, and are best represented by someone who knows them well, eg, their family, carer or advocate.
  • People with complex communication needs may make use of various methods of communication, including communication aids or devices (eg, computer technologies/software, picture-based communication boards, whiteboards or speaking devices), gestures (eg, eye gaze or head/hand movements), facial expressions or visual aids (eg, pictures, diagrams, signs or objects).

Communication aids/technologies

In terms of communication aids/technologies used by people with complex needs, consider the following.

  • The tips in the above section also apply when you are having a conversation with someone who uses a communication aid. It is important to respect a person’s individual methods of communication.
  • Allow the conversation to take place at a slightly slower pace. Allow the person time to respond to questions, and take the time to listen and understand their response.
  • Be patient, and allow the person sufficient time to use an aid to finish what they are saying. Never attempt to finish a sentence for the person. If it is not clear what the person has said, politely ask them to repeat themselves.