4 Tips on How to Talk to My Son With a Speech Difference


My adult son has cerebral palsy and various other disabilities, including a visual impairment. He also has his MSW and a job as community organizer with the Independent Living Resource Center in Santa Barbara. When people first meet him they are often disquieted because his eyes jerk around (nystagmus) and his speech can be hard to understand. Some people can’t get past his speech and his not making eye contact and assume he is cognitively impaired. They often ask him questions about his “day program” or who is with him. Obviously, this does not make it easy for him to get to know people.

When you have a conversation with Jacob, you have be totally present. For example, I could not have a conversation with him while washing dishes or watching television. You have to pay close attention to be able to understand him. Curiously, second language speakers often understand him better than native English speakers. I wonder if it is because second language speakers pay more attention to understand someone speaking English when it is not their first language. You have to really want to be able to communicate with Jacob in order for it to happen.

You do not have to talk extra loudly or more slowly, or use shorter words or use greater emphasis when you speak to him. His hearing is quite good, and his comprehension and processing are often better than most. There is no reason for you to change your speech, you need to just listen more carefully than usual.

Jacob knows he has cerebral palsy and his speech is often difficult to understand. If you explain you are having a hard time understanding him, he will not clutch at his heart and fall over in shock. You will not be giving him bad news about his speech. He already knows this. He has lived with it since he started to talk. He accepts it as part of him and is not embarrassed about it. You will not be embarrassing him or yourself by bringing it up. What is not OK is nodding your head with a blank look on your face pretending you are understanding what he is saying. Equally unhelpful is “the deer in the headlights” face that says, “I don’t understand and am totally freaked out.”

He, like the rest of us, wants to be understood. The point of communicating is that your ideas are received by the person you are communicating with and you receive theirs. When you fake understanding by nodding and saying, “uh huh” when you don’t understand, you are not having a conversation with him. How can you discuss stuff if you can’t understand what he is saying?

The following are some tips to help facilitate some real communication with a person who speaks differently: 

1.     Pay attention.

You have to direct all your attention to make this communication work. Concentrate and try to ignore all potential outside distractions.

2.     Only nod your head and say “uh huh” when you really and truly understand what has been said.

Generally, nodding one’s head and saying “uh huh” indicates understanding of what has been said. It clues the speaker to the fact that you are understanding them or in agreement. If you keep doing this when you really don’t understand what is going on, it is misleading to the speaker who thinks he has been understood. If at the end it is revealed that you understood virtually none of what he said, the speaker feels betrayed. He assumed you were following his ideas and suddenly realizes you didn’t get it at all.

3.     Interrupt and ask for clarification when necessary.

If you lose the thread of the conversation or don’t understand something, it’s OK to interrupt and ask for clarification. With my son, I usually say “Stop.” Since you did not give birth to him, you may want to use something a little less authoritarian. “Just a minute” or “Hang on a second” will do. “I’m afraid I lost you” is a bit more formal. Whatever feels comfortable to you is best.

4.     Be specific about where you stopped understanding so there is no need to start at the beginning all over again.

You can say, “I understood up to the part where you said, ‘It was an amazing…’ I didn’t get anything after that.” Or you can say, “I lost you after the part about winning the game. Can you please go back to that and let me try again?”

It is possible that to someone else this might have been intelligible, but I didn’t understand. I am asking him to please repeat so I can understand what he said. I have traveled in many countries where I did not speak the language. I was generally able to communicate one way or another with people who wanted to communicate with me. All parties involved need to want to exchange ideas or obtain information in order for it to be successful. Both sides have to be willing to put some effort into communicating.

I think Jacob and many other people with speech differences or accents have a lot to offer, and they are prepared to work hard to be understood. Those of us who are “listeners” need to be willing to make an equal effort.

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