[Dr Jill Bradshaw, University of Kent] If you’re supporting somebody who has a learning disability, an intellectual disability, autism, it’s really common that people think that the person they’re supporting understands more than they do and I think there’s a few things that are happening there, and the most important thing to think about is that in English, there’s a huge amount of what we call linguistic redundancy, so we use far more words than or ever needed and lots of the words that we use are completely superfluous, and if you strip that down in terms of the words that you actually need to understand and process, even instructions that appear terribly complex in terms of people’s understanding skills are not particularly difficult to understand.

So an example of that might be if I’m making tea and coffee and Bill and Fred are in the other room and I say to the person: “Can you take the tea and can you give it to Fred?” Okay so – “Can you take the tea and give it to Fred?” That looks like the person’s had to process and understand 10 words in that sentence. Actually they can probably do that by just picking up on two key words, so just picking up on ‘tea’ and ‘Fred’. So that looks like a terribly complex phrase whereas in order to do what it is you’ve asked them to do, it’s not difficult, it’s about picking up on two key words.

People will often have lives that are quite predictable and that are quite routine and people will be very skilled often at picking up on the information that is there in the environment, picking up on the situation and thinking about what’s most likely, given what I am seeing and hearing in my environment. So if it’s in the morning and what always happens to me in the morning is that the bus comes and I go off and I’m supported to be elsewhere, that’s something that I will be really quite used to and so the point at which the doorbell rings, the member of staff might say to me: “Oh can you get your coat and your shoes on now because the bus is here?” Can you get your coat and your shoes on now because the bus is here – okay that’s 15 words. I probably don’t need to have processed any of those words because my experience is that when the doorbell rings and it’s this kind of time in the morning, the bus is here and I’m going out, and what I need to go out is my coat and my shoes.

Okay so what staff are often seeing is people responding to the situation and the environment, but because alongside that staff are issuing statements or giving information, it’s easy to see why staff might think that the person is understanding that 15-word, very complex instruction. Actually what’s more important for all of us is the context and the situation and thinking about what’s most likely to be the message, given what I’m seeing around me.