(This post can also be applied to nonverbal adults. In this article I refer to my son, Jeremiah. He’s six-years-old, has autism, and can’t speak, however he can make limited sounds.)
We talk for them, we assume what they want. We don’t listen to the their nonverbal cues, we move on without concern for the nonverbal child’s desires or needs. But every person desires something in life, they have immediate needs and future plans, and for the person who can’t talk, those aspirations are largely ignored.
So, how do we know what our nonverbal child wants? We watch and we listen very carefully. Many of us parents of autistic kids spend our lives studying and listening. We study autism, we pour over articles and books. Some study treatments and therapies, and look for the most knowledgeable professionals. We listen to parents of autistic kids, and some of us listen to autistic adults. Hopefully when it comes to our children we’re doing the same, hopefully we’re listening to them.
We must carefully watch our kiddos who can’t communicate well, listening for what they’re doing in the back of the house, which cupboard are they getting into (or maybe yours all have locks ;)). What do they play with most? If they’re staring intently at something, what is it and why are they doing it? Once when I was at Jeremiah’s school, he was dancing in circles and staring at the floor. One of his paras chuckled and asked him what he was doing, as if he were being funny. I noticed there was a purpose to what Jeremiah was doing, he was staring at his reflection on the tile floor. I’m learning to always watch, always ponder, and most of the time I ask him what he’s doing, just as the aid did.
If our child doesn’t talk, how do we know what they’re interested in? If we’re lucky and our child is interested in balls, it’s the ball they pick up the most. What do they do with it? Do they throw it, kick it, roll it? What’s your child’s favorite color? Look at what they’re most interested in, what color is it? Is it a red car? A black motorcycle? A doll wearing pink? For many of you, your child has interests in odd things, maybe a yard sprinkler or kitchen spatula, is it shiny or dull in color?
When some autism parents are asked what their child’s favorite movie is, they respond, “I don’t know, he likes several movies.” But what are his reactions to the movies he watches? Jeremiah claps like crazy when he watches Madagascar, it seems to be his favorite, but he may choose other movies to watch. He likes them, but they aren’t his favorite.
When our children do voice (or maybe with a noise made with their body, like clapping) it’s important for us to recognize it. If Jeremiah is clapping while the Lemurs on Madagascar are cheering, I talk to him about it. “Do you love this part?” “Are you cheering with them?” I also give him words, “Are you clapping because you’re happy?”
We also pay close attention to connection made in every day life. Every time we used to drive past a certain point on the highway, Jeremiah would start bawling. It didn’t take too long for my perceptible husband, Justin, to realize it was because we drove by Burger King without getting a drink or french fries. Whoops.
Jeremiah loves his schedule, just like your kiddo right?😉 When we turn to go down the street that passes his school at a time when he’s not supposed to be in school, he wails, a siren wail. His way of saying, “What are you doing? I’m NOT going to school, this is not a school day. I know because I know what time it is and I didn’t got to school today peeps.” He loves school, he does awesome there and walks right in when it’s TIME to go to school, but when it’s not, he would much rather be at home or with his family. Just another connection.
Jeremiah has ways of saying, “Heck no!” If he’s in his room and we ask him if he wants to go outside with us and he doesn’t, he’ll slam his door. When you don’t have words, how else are you going to say “no”? Slam that door! He also has verbal sounds that mean yes and no, however they aren’t quite as clear or consistent, but they do exist. If your child can make any noises, they probably do too. They also have facial expressions to express what they want or don’t want. But you have to really study your child to understand those facial and verbal cues that aren’t so obvious.
Jeremiah sometimes has an “uh huh” sound for “thank you” when I give him something he wants. I say “thank you” for him and tell him “You’re welcome.” His “thank you” sound is very similar to his “yes” sound, but we can usually tell what he’s trying to communicate given the surrounding circumstances.
It’s important to treat your child as a person who has opinions.
Ask your child questions. “Do you like the truck?” If they’re looking at a picture of someone swimming, ask them, “Do you like to swim?” If your confident your child enjoys swimming, you can say, “You love to swim!” Jeremiah responds well when we say this, and if we’re making plans to swim that week, we can tell him. This is a great way to move beyond PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to have conversations with your child about the past and the future.
Recently we went on a special needs ski trip with our son’s school. As my husband walked by one of the kids (a nonverbal child), he began conversing with her parents. The dad made a comment about the ski instructor (who works with special needs kids) talking to his daughter as if she’d respond, but he said she wouldn’t respond because she couldn’t.
I think the ski instructor had it right though. He may not have known she couldn’t talk, but he probably figured out fairly quickly through her behavior that she couldn’t speak. The ski instructor may have been talking to this girl the way he was because he wanted her to feel normal, he wanted her to know she has opinions, wants, and needs and he was interested. No matter that she couldn’t tell him.
Nonverbal people want to be treated like everyone else.
In the book Neuro Tribes, Silberman talks about his time spent with Craig and Shannon, Leo’s parents. Leo has autism and his parents are amazing at learning what Leo’s cues are, what his sounds mean, and how they’re connected to his feelings. Here’s an excerpt from Neuro Tribes,
“Some days, Leo hardly says anything at all, though no one could accuse him of being unexpressive. He has his own versatile lexicon of nonverbal sounds, song fragments, and catchphrases that he uses to communicate with the people he knows and trusts. When Leo is happy, he bursts out in riffs of scat singing, making up little melodies as he goes. When he’s basically content but feeling restless, he makes a sound like tikka, tikka, tikka. If he’s more anxious than that, he makes a sound like Jimmy Durante: “Atch-cha-cha!” A sudden burst of happiness can inspire Leo to whirl his arms around and gallop in circles shouting, “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” When he’s tired, he makes a soft keening noise. And when Leo is hungry, he just sobs his heart out. After visiting an aquarium in Seattle with his family, he added the chirps of a beluga whale to his repertoire of echolalia (the term of art for the way that autistic people sample the speech they hear around them and repurpose it for their own use).”
Wow, when I read about Leo, I know I have a ton of investigating to do with Jeremiah. I have a gazillion more connections to make between his actions and sounds and how he’s feeling.
But isn’t the story about Leo amazing? Autistic kids, or any child who has special needs just want to be treated like everyone else. Isn’t that what we all want? We don’t want to be thought of as less-than, like we don’t have opinions or needs. Like we’re hungry only when everyone else is ready to eat, and if we’re cranky it must mean we’re just tired. Maybe we don’t feel good, maybe we’re having a bad day. We want someone to care. Ask your child how their day was at school, how they feel about the weather, if they played with any friends at school. Talk to them, they’ll appreciate it.
Don’t forget to check out this article I linked to in this post, it will give you a whole new wonderful way to communicate with your child: Give Your Autistic Child Ways to “Talk” About the Past
You may also be interested in the article: So Many Things I’d Say If Only I Were Able
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