Children with profound disabilities make decisions, and group compassion therapy aids mental health

Adults need to know how to help children with profound and multiple disabilities to make decisions about their future, and group therapy with compassion has promising results, says Juliet Diener

Community Living

Children need opportunities to plan their lives, regardless of disability, and group therapy with a compassionate approach aims to reduce anxiety.

Children’s decisions

Farmer KE, Stringer P. Understanding the views of children with profound and multiple learning difficulties for person‐centred planning. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 17 March 2023. 

Every child, regardless of intellectual challenge, should actively participate in decisions about their future, according to the Children and Families Act 2014.

The complexity lies in adults facilitating opportunities for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) so they are not to be disadvantaged in sharing opinions.

Person-centred planning is the focus of the study because it is recommended by both the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Code of Practice and the Department of Health and Social Care.

The authors have worked as educational psychologists in schools for students with complex needs. They reflect on the debate of what it is to gather a view as opposed to merely a response from a child with PMLD.

However, the focus of the qualitative multi-case study is primarily to ascertain the role of the adult in supporting a child or young person’s participation in decision-making. The study explores the experience of three young people using grounded theory (a qualitative research method grounded in data) with an emphasis on researcher reflexivity.

Each case study included the mother of the child and two professionals involved with their education. None of the children used formal communication systems.

Findings indicate how the social and relational context of the adult or communication partner enabled informed observations that helped them understand the child’s needs.

The perspectives of professionals from a variety of fields offer further insights into a child being part of the decision-making process.

The study’s findings are transferable to any age and stage of learning need. They also offer insights into securing everyone’s participation in their plans.

Compassion to selves and others

Hewitt O, Codd J, Maguire K, Balendra M, Tariq S. A mixed methods evaluation of a compassion‐focused therapy group intervention for people with an intellectual disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 17 April 2023.

This cites research showing that people with intellectual disability have a greater risk of psychological difficulties and mental health conditions because of various interpersonal, social, and environmental factors.

Clearly stating the value of psychological support for adults with learning disabilities, the researchers focus on applying a compassion-focused therapy.

This is a type of psychotherapy that encourages people to be compassionate to themselves and others, and aims to reduce anxiety and introduce more self-compassion into day-today life. It has had some success with learning-disabled people.

In this study, a group of seven people attended eight weekly sessions. These had a similar structure to aid accessibility, with exercises and discussion.

The group was facilitated by three trainee clinical psychologists, who received regular clinical supervision. The results, while on a small scale, indicated change in each participant’s wellbeing and, for most, their self-compassion too.

There is a considerable lack of knowledge and training in meeting mental health needs

Interviews with participants offered insights into their experiences and they reflected on their ability to practise compassion. They recognised the value of the experiential exercises, which lessened the need for cognitive challenge or verbal engagement.

While the authors believe further study on the efficacy of this approach is needed, indicators reveal its value. Input from carers was lacking and studies on this could offer further insights into the impact of the group on participants.