How To Communicate More Effectively When Working With Special Needs Adults

As a behavioral health professional, it’s important for you to communicate with patients and their families. When a patient has special needs, it is vital to know how to communicate most effectively with them in order to achieve success in their treatment.

Patients can have a variety of challenges when it comes to verbal and/or expressive communication, which can be related to speech and language, social skills and/or behavior. There are many different ways we communicate, whether it’s facial expressions, hand movements, or inflection. It may surprise you to learn very little of our communication actually comes from a verbal action.

Studies show that verbal communication—the use of words—is only 7 percent of what we actually mean and say. It’s important to understand the challenges your patient experiences when working with them and their families, so you can experience a better rate of success in your work.

First Things First

The first thing you need to establish is if your patient has challenges related to communication. You should never assume. Instead, take the time to understand the skills your patient does or doesn’t possess. Develop a comfortable rapport with your patient, so they feel at ease and able to express themselves. Assess the situation and use your professional judgment going forward.


Throughout the process, always consider the wishes of your patient and their family. You need to treat your patient with the utmost respect, and that means accepting their communication challenges and providing them with the tools to adapt or overcome their disabilities. No one likes to be put down or feel defeated by his or her own personal obstacles. As a behavioral health professional, you need to help your patients have self-confidence in who they are and how they contribute to their families and communities.

Family Matters

You also need to have patience and openness when communicating. These traits can be key factors in your success. It never hurts to have a discussion with the family of your patient. Family members can offer insight on what communication problems might exist, what methods seem to work best, and any other tips you should keep in mind. Taking the time to have an open discussion can help you avoid feeling feeling defeated and frustrated, even if things don’t go perfectly right away.

Be Patient

This is where patience comes in. You’re not going to be able to overcome every communication challenge on the first go. If you have patience, your patients will have more patience with themselves. Communication tools can be learned; you just need to have the patience to help your patient achieve success.


To communicate effectively, you need to listen as well as respond. Even if your patient doesn’t struggle with communication, your sessions won’t go anywhere if you aren’t actively listening. Remove distractions for you and your patient. Turn off cell phones, close the curtains or door, and stay focused on what they’re saying (or not saying). You need to be able to listen, analyze and provide constructive feedback—all, which depend on your active listening abilities.


Pathways is one of the largest national providers of accessible, outcome-based behavioral and mental health services. Pathways of Pennsylvania has been serving communities in Pennsylvania since 1981, and is comprised of four companies: Children’s Behavioral Health, Inc., Pathways Community Services, LLC, Raystown Developmental Services, Inc., and The ReDCo Group, Inc. We believe every individual has a right to lead a meaningful and positive life, and we are changing lives, one day at a time.