Social Communication and Masks

The job of speech therapist just got a little harder.
Photo by Ade JBones Van Vliet
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Face coverings mean that we all have to re-think our communication style…..

Come the new academic term, parts of my job as a Speech and Language Therapist are going to look very different due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Most people are not aware of the different roles involved in Speech and Language Therapy but along with the other great unknown of dealing with swallowing difficulties, we can also work on social skills and emotions. I work with adults and children who have autism, so the latter is a big part of my job.  

Some people with autism have difficulty reading facial expressions so this forms a common part of the therapy that I deliver within my clinic.  This year I am going to have to add in the extra detail of reading facial expressions of those wearing masks.   People with autism can be exempt from wearing masks themselves if it causes them distress to do so. However, they still have to try and interpret the facial expressions of others who are wearing them.  It is not just people with autism who struggle with social communication and face coverings.  I have anecdotally heard a lot of people comment that they have struggled to both comprehend and express themselves fully due to mask-wearing, especially within a social context. Let me, therefore, look at some ways to remedy these difficulties.


Thankfully, our communication relies on things other than just our mouth movements.  For example, our eyes and eyebrows alone can tell us a lot about how someone is feeling.  If you take out a mirror and move your face into different expressions, watch how they change with each emotion. For instance, when we are angry our eyebrows come closer together and when we are surprised they are raised. 

We also have wider body language to help us decode how someone is feeling. For example, you don’t need to see someone’s mouth or even hear them speak to know if someone is bored. The fact their body is slumped over with their head in their hand tells us all we need to know!

Don’t forget we also use tone of voice to interpret someone’s emotions.  Remember it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it that counts!

We also have wider body language to help us decode how someone is feeling. For example, you don’t need to see someone’s mouth or even hear them speak to know if someone is bored. The fact their body is slumped over with their head in their hand tells us all we need to know!

All types of face coverings obstruct hearing and consequently communication to some extent.  It is therefore really important that you think of extra things when conversing whilst wearing them. For instance, pick a place to talk where there is less background noise which includes turning the TV or music off or down.  No matter how hard you try, the Metro or Tube is probably no longer a great place for a deep conversation due to the noise of these underground systems! Get the other person’s attention before you even start to talk or they may not even realise that you’ve spoken!  Use more gestures and eye movements to emphasise your point and aid expression. Speaking a bit more slowly can give more clarity to your communication.  Check that the other person has completely caught what you have just said before continuing the conversation. 

 Do not pretend you have understood someone if you have not, we are all in the same boat and more repetitions than normal may be needed now with facial coverings. Watch the other person’s body language in more detail to help you join up the dots of the message being sent, as mentioned above. 

The context of the situation will also help you to decipher what is being said.  For example, in a restaurant, you can probably guess what the server will say to you as they come up to your table.  If all else fails you can always type out what you are trying to say into your phone and show the other person, this may be particularly useful in the above underground situation! There are of course the masks with transparent panels you can buy to help get around the difficulties of recognising emotions, and which are so essential for lip readers.  They can be especially useful as just wearing face shields alone have been shown to not be as effective at stopping the transmission of Covid-19.

We may be wearing face coverings for some time to come so it means that each and every one of us will have to rethink our communication style to some extent. 

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