Heart rate and skin temperature offer insights into emotions of people with profound learning disabilities


The late Jim Mansell recently identified the need for all of us supporting people with profound learning disabilities to ‘raise our sights’ in ensuring better quality support and subsequently better outcomes requires a significant amount of skill  (see Raising our Sights)  Projects like Mencap’s Involve Me offer a range of resources aiming to break down barriers and ensure people get more involved in decisions that affect their everyday lives.   However achieving a good understanding of communication and the emotions that lay behind that communication remains a significant challenge for all involved.

The researchers in this study were interested in ways to better Identify emotions in people with severe and profound learning disabilities. Verbal reporting on emotion is not an option in this group, so the most common source of information has been behaviour.

However, interpretation of behaviour can vary widely dependent on situation, training, support, knowledge etc. The authors suggest there is a need to supplement behavioural information with information from other sources.

They ask whether it is possible to look at changes in physiology to provide information on the emotions of people with severe and profound learning disabilities.  They tested the relationship between heart rate, skin conductance and skin temperature and behavioural expressions of emotions. They worked with 27 people using 4 negative and 4 posotive stimuli as suggested by support staff.

They used video to capture behavioural responses and took measurements of heart rate, skin conductance and skin temperature.
They found that when people were presented with negative stimuli, they had lower heart rate than when they were presented with positive stimuli. They also found that skin temperature was higher for low intensity negative emotions compared to low intensity positive emotions.

The authors suggest that their findings point to heart rate and skin temperature being good sources of information about the emotions of persons with severe and profound learning disabilities.

The tell-tale: What do heart rate; skin temperature and skin conductance reveal about emotions of people with severe and profound intellectual disabilities?, Vos P et al., in Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33, 4, 1117–1127

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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