Whether you are closely connected or not with any Autistic individuals, the chances are that you will have heard the term “non-verbal” or met an individual who struggles to communicate verbally.
Before I talk any more about the subject I want to emphasise the most important aspect of this subject. Under no circumstances should the description “non verbal” ever be interpreted as an inability to communicate.
At the Autism Cork conference in 2020 Dr Olga Bogdashina gave a talk on communication where she highlighted that in neurodiverse children sensory perception may become more dominant than verbal communication during development. In these situations she said, you have to expose children to several different types of object to help them develop and grasp a concept of that object.
She argued that Autistic language can be visual, spatial, auditory, tactile, kinaesthetic and olfactory. Sensory and auditory problems in children can prevent them understanding speech.
She described 3 functions for echolalia (the habit of repeating words or sounds continuously)
It can be a calming or pleasurable experience
It can be an attempt to communicate
It can be a way of creating more time to respond.
Dr Bogdashina was very clear that children pick up the sensations of OUR emotions in THEIR bodies. In other words, they are highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around them, and will quickly identify if an individual is pleased or frustrated with them.
In her opinion the best way to communicate with children was to identify which form of communication they prefer and use that.
For individuals who have difficulty with using speech, other ways to communicate could include signing, use of symbols, gestures, written communication and Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAs). High-tech aids need batteries to work and cover a variety of systems. These make use of whatever physical movement the user can control, which could be their hands, feet, head or eyes. High-tech aids allow the individual to make choices and create messages using pictures, symbols, words or letters that can be linked to an electronic voice.
Low-tech aids are those that don’t need batteries to work, such as picture or symbol books or boards.
Carly’s Voice is a book co-written by Arthur Fleischman and his daughter Carly Fleischman. Having struggled with verbal communication, at the age of 10, Carly was able to type a message about her teeth hurting on a laptop. From then on her communication flowed through that mechanism and revealed to her family a world that they had no idea about.
“Carly’s voice makes it very clear that a nonverbal person with autism has a rich inner life. Typing independently enabled Carly to express wit, explain her sensory problems, and show that a good mind had been freed.” Temple Grandin
Carly’s parents had through her childhood used specialised carers to work with her individually, and it was clear to them that despite her limitations, she was an incredibly intelligent child.
What Carly Fleischman teaches us, is that a nonverbal child is not one that is unable to communicate, and especially not one who does not understand the people communicating around them.
Nonverbal children challenge us to expand our limited view of communication, and search for new ways of connecting. In my own experience it is especially important I believe to constantly question the different behaviours that children display and ask what they might be trying to communicate. Is a child who is stimming actually trying to tell us that the noise level around them is causing a sensory overload? If we miss that sign, and the child’s behaviours become more exaggerated, is that not our failure to pay attention? It is almost impossible as a parent or carer to pick up on every clue that we are being given. But I really believe that in any situation, a calm mind and a pause for reflection can open our eyes to greater understanding.