Does your child with a developmental or cognitive disability ever hurt themselves or others? Children with communications disorders, one way of looking at kids like mine who have developmental disabilities, may sometimes revert to the most basic forms of communication. If their needs are unmet, they may demonstrate their need by acting-out.

While training for certification as a Tactical Communications instructor with Verbal Defense & Influence, I learned that most speech is just sophisticated grunting, even for adults. On average, only 7% of our face-to-face communication is words and data.  The bulk of interpersonal communication, an average of 93%, is pure facial expression, other body language, and other nonverbal communication, like our tone and volume of voice (A. Mehrabian, 1971).

As neurotypical persons, we have all sorts of things in our nonverbal lexicon to communicate our needs. We say most of what we need to say just by our facial expression and eye contact. To specify, all we need then do is cross our arms and shiver to tell someone we’re cold. We can make a motion like drinking or eating to communicate those particular needs. If something hurts, we can wince in pain and point to affected area.  Children with developmental disabilities are limited in the language of nonverbal communication. Some may not have the natural ability to interpret nonverbal communication at all. And if they can’t understand it, then they can’t speak it either.

When kids with developmental disabilities act-out we need to search for the antecedent—what came before the action or what is presently causing them to act-out. Acting-out in all children is usually the outward sign of an unmet need. Slapping bare skin may mean they are cold, so try covering the area they are slapping. This sometimes works like magic! Biting self or others may simply mean they are hungry. I’ve seen spitting behaviors stop after giving a child a drink. Hitting, scratching or biting a body part may mean pain or discomfort in that location. Touching private parts often means toileting needs. Look for how your child is behaving just before they act-out and you may find a basis for future communication.

I have seen many examples where acting-out behaviors simply disappeared when kids were fed, covered up, or taken to the bathroom. I know one kid who put his head through a bus window for no apparent reason. When they checked his ears he turned out to have one heck an ear infection. Is that why he did it? Most of us who know him think that’s probably why.

Sometimes the cause of negative behaviors can be really sophisticated, like an irritation to certain fabrics. Changing their clothes can sometimes do the trick. Sometimes it’s just too much stimulation—too bright, too loud and too busy. Calm down the environment and see if your kid doesn’t calm down with it. As parents, we need to get good at anticipating needs, which wasn’t an easy task for me when my son was little. We should watch closely when our kids are acting-out. They are usually trying to tell us something and we have to participate in the conversation if we want to help them.

Joel Lashley is hospital security professional and trainer whose family needs and personal interests have led him to specialize in the care of children and adolescents with special needs. Please review his articles on Joel can be contacted at joellashley@chw.or