Understanding each other

Being misunderstood or at best mistaken is a problem for people with learning disabilities as well as for everyone. The reason this occurs is due to not reading facial expressions as emotions or having what is called emotional intelligence to read how the other person is feeling. And then a catastrophic breakdown in relationships can occur!

I have witnessed this often. Even when showing images like the one above many individuals with a learning disability might be able to read that emotion as it’s dramatic and at an extreme level – anger – as opposed to nuances of emotions like confusion and anxiety which I think is difficult for many people with learning disabilities to read . See the image below and these nuances are more difficult to decipher. What is the ladies emotion for instance? Couple that with body language and being able to not read that a lot of communication is being missed – causing mis-communication to occur. 

To function in society we need to read facial expressions and body language. So is there a hidden and far more impacting disability arising when you can’t make those connections. Autistic people struggle with these skills but my hypothesis is that many people with learning disabilites also have this problem. So how do we teach or improve these skills


Use photographs which you can readily get off the internet and use in a 1:1 session or group session asking what emotion is being shown in the images. Choose emotions that are more subtle rather than the extremes of happy, sad. How about worried, fearful, stressed, thoughtful, concentrating, distracted, irritable. Do the same with full-body images to show boredom, anxiety, slouching, slumping.


When a mis-communication between people with learning disabilities occur stop and explain that they have not understood the other person . Get each person to tell the other person how they feel or rehearse the message.


Many mis-communications occur because the individuals are not looking at each other and reading their total communication. Use phrases such as “Look at…name of the person>” and encourage a replay of what each person was trying to explain to the other person. Looking at another person’s face is difficult for autistic people but using the computer can help.

Interactive Materials

“Emotions reader” by John Haberson from the iTune store (£7.49) is a good tool to use as it demonstrates via an interactive book on an iPad different emotions like affection, amusement, approval. This is good for gaining understanding but needs to be grounded in generalisation in everyday settings where the different emotions can be read properly. Just going through a longlist is not going to help

Use a camera

Mobile phones, iPads and tablets all have a camera that can take a facial or body language learning opportunity. Taking  familiar people  may help individuals in your groups to read the emotions of others correctly. Using video can playback situations they have been in where mis-communication has occured to learn from especially if it has just happened. This needn’t be saved and anaylsed too deeply but a way of exploring a situation immediately due to the short attention span and memory of some individuals with learning disabilities.

Use drama

To explore situations in which the individuals in your group or setting repeatedly mis-read their communications and act out rather like a social story showing the implications of their actions which inevitably has consequences!

Although we have used LDA cards with speech and language therapists to do this kind of work I don’t think it is being done enough judging by the adults I meet on a regular basis who are totally unaware of their difficulties in reading other people’s emotions. In this age of personal plans and so much care given around care “the way you want it” it makes people even more egocentric then perhaps they were already. Perhaps we should have a curriculum subject called ” Understanding each other” where empathy is taught more explicitly. Of course you may well be doing all this already and have found this article a bit patronising. I am sorry if that’s the case and pat you on the back for your sterling work!

Myles Pilling is a retired special schools teacher and an assistive technologist for AccessAbility Solutions – http://aas123.com  – he is a blogger, writer and researcher as well as lecturer and trainer. 

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