No Worries

A person relaxing on the floor

Think about the last time you had to give a presentation in class or defend your opinion to your supervisor. I still have occasional nightmares about my first job. Under pressure, we often feel the need to be perfect. We experience anxiety and stage fright. Under pressure, it is quite simply difficult to get the words out.

Communication under pressure is never easy. Our hearts beat faster, we get a surge of adrenaline, and we start to feel stressed out. This is not a pleasant experience, especially when the listener keeps placing demands.

This pressure to perform can have a negative impact on anyone! It can be even harder for someone who is not able to speak effectively. When a person has complex communication needs, excess pressure discourages self-expression. For those learning to use a different method to communicate, it is really hard. When the pressure is high, we cause the person to feel stressed and anxious. We risk making communication feel like work.

Unfortunately, some high tech methods such as AAC are often “taught” in a top-down manner. Let’s try to make it a shared learning experience. We need to avoid the dynamic in which the “instructor” has all the power and tells the learner what to do. Too often, we tell someone what to say on their AAC device.

There is a better way to encourage communication. Start by taking the pressure off.

  • Show by doing. Show the person how to use the device without telling them what to say.
  • Offer choices and make comments.
  • Take turns on the device.
  • Accept and reflect on the messages in whatever manner you receive them.
  • Follow that person’s focus, and use their preferences to find a topic to model.
  • Have fun and don’t worry. You don’t have to be perfect. Take the pressure off yourself as well.


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This video talks about the "fear of public speaking". How does it relate to people with complex communication needs?

Deepen Your Understanding

One of the most frustrating experiences one can have is when we are not able to understand each other. The most common but also less frustrating situation is, of course, traveling to a country we don’t speak the language of or when meeting a tourist in our town who does not speak our language.

Being an expat, I have been living in France for five years now, and I still have these moments on a regular basis. I would say that my French is nowadays at a “Full professional proficiency” like they say on LinkedIn, and I am pretty sure that most of my French contacts would agree.

I speak French on a daily basis in both my social and private life but also in a professional context. But there is this phenomenon of the German accent.

Amongst my friends and also in a work-related situation, I have never encountered any problem or even confusion. To the contrary, French people actually appreciate when us foreigners speak French with them. There is one odd scenario though.

At least once a month and particularly during summer time when all the young, untrained summer jobbers work in the bakeries and supermarkets I get stuck in a dialogue, even multiple times per week.

I call this phenomenon the “accent kill switch”. As soon as I order something and the person behind the counter notices that I speak French with an accent, the kill switch clicks and they think that they cannot understand me, supposedly because I was not speaking French.

Yes, I know, I am pronouncing some French words a little differently than the locals but there is really no objective reason that it could not be understood.

It then usually takes me three to four times to get the message across, sometimes longer when the other person tries to activate his or her English. Sometimes the situation gets so far that I start to doubt my ability to speak French.

Stress seems to have a severe impact on our ability to think clearly and a natural reaction is the need to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.

While those everyday life situations are frustrating but not harmful, there are also situations that go far beyond the usual problem of not speaking or understanding a foreign language.

How do you deal with a speech disabled person or how to deal with the local population in a war zone where clear communication can even decide over life or death?

Today, technology can play a key role in lowering the stress in for most people unusual situations, from the local coffee shop to a mountain village in Afghanistan…