George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” In other words, the worst miscommunication is when you think you have accurately conveyed something to another person, when in reality, he or she completely missed your point.

Communication is a lot more than the words we say and how we say them. Research has shown that language is also interpreted by the listener, who “decodes” the words based on his or her experiences. This is especially true when dealing with people who suffer from certain disorders or learning disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome, and ADHD.

Down Syndrome

Dr. Sue Buckley describes the language difficulties experienced by Down Syndrome children:

Despite a wide range of individual differences, most children are late in saying their first words, their vocabulary grows more slowly than in ordinary children and although they use the same range of two- word phrases as all children, they have difficulty in mastering the many rules for talking in grammatically correct sentences.

In addition to their delayed language development, Down Syndrome children are also generally less mature than other children their age. As a result, they will have trouble understanding their peers when they discuss age-appropriate topics to which they are not yet able to relate. Communication is thus impaired both by the child’s limited vocabulary and improper grammar, and his limited understanding of the social world around him.

Down Syndrome Education International suggests several ways to increase Down Syndrome children’s understanding of language:

Early Conversation:All children learn from conversation with their parents, even when they are unable to respond. As children grow, adults should try to appropriately expand two and three-word utterances into full sentences, to encourage conversational comfort and fluidity.

Sign languagecan help reduce the negative effects of production delay and keep up the rate of vocabulary acquisition. Because children with Down Syndrome have oral delays in language, sign language can help them learn words that their mouths might not be able to say.

Asperger’s Syndrome

Hans Asperger noticed he had many patients with deficient social and communicative skills even though they had normal language production and cognitive abilities. The disorder he identified, and which is now known by his name, is characterized by difficulty producing and interpreting facial expressions, body language, and gestures. Patients with Asperger’s usually want to fit in and interact with others, but don’t know how. They may be socially awkward, not pick up on social cues, or show a lack of empathy.

Children with Asperger’s are visual learners and thinkers, and thus visuals can be helpful in improving comprehension. Examples include:

Checklists:Creating visual checklists with the “to do list” can help children with Asperger’s understand their responsibilities and goals.

Hand signals:Incorporate hand signals into daily communication.For instance, if you want your child to say he needs to go to the bathroom, but he has trouble saying those words, create a hand signal that explains his need.

Lists of rules:Children with Asperger’s can benefit from a written list of rules posted on the wall, as opposed to just hearing them presented verbally.


ADHD is a common disorder that affects 8-10 percent of school age children. Dr. Richard Kingsley explains, “Kids with ADHD act without thinking, are hyperactive, and have trouble focusing. They may understand what’s expected but have trouble following through because they can’t sit still, pay attention, or attend to details.”

ADHD children often struggle to find the right words and put them together in a linear and efficient manner, which can lead to reluctance to explore their ability to vocalize, learn new sounds, or listen to the language spoken. This, in turn, leads to delays in language acquisition, and a vicious cycle of a refusal to communicate and aggravation resulting from the inability to articulate feelings.

ADHD children who misinterpret language lack not the raw skills, but rather practice.

Several techniques can help ADHD children develop language and communication:

Initial communication:If a child refuses to speak, come up with alternate forms of communication to use at the beginning (signing, pictures, writing).

Repetition:In order to avoid miscommunication, have children repeat the language in their own words.

Social skills training: Role-playing potential interactions can help ADHD children understand and read social situations, such as making introductions and casual conversations with friends.

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld, founder and director of the SOS program, is an educator and educational consultant with specialization as a keriah and reading coach. Serving the Jewish community for close to 30 years, she has experience providing evaluations, G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness.