Tools You Can Use

Tips for Communicating with a Patient with Intellectual Disabilities

Austrian Athlete Herwig Worschitz Received a Health Athletes Opening Eyes Screening from a Volunteer at the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria

Anita Lesko is a nurse anesthetist and a champion for people living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Anita is an adult living with Asperger disorder who did not receive her diagnosis until she was 50 years old. To learn more about her story and the resources she developed, please visit her website at:

Begin with the tips below and then download the complete resource.

  • Presume competence. Approach the situation as if the patient can understand you. This is simply showing respect towards the individual.
  • Keep the number of healthcare providers in the room to a minimum
  • Limit the amount of words you use
  • Use key words that are specific to the situation. You may need to repeat and emphasize them.
  • Do not use figurative language - people with intellectual disabilities may take things very literally.
  • Provide simple and straight-to-the-point instructions
  • Accompany your words with simple gestures such as pointing
  • Accompany your words with visual supports
  • You might need to pause between words or short sentences to allow the patient time to process what you are saying. Be patient and allow the patient time to put his or her thoughts into words.
  • Recognize that patients with intellectual disabilities may have difficulty with self-report of symptoms of illness, injury, and pain. You need to ask the right questions.
  • Allow for alternative ways of communication other than verbal language.
  • Use multiple forms of communication to check for understanding.