viewing my nonverbal child differently (special needs/Autism)


My son, Jeremiah, has something to say. Problem is, he can’t. He has nonverbal Autism. I’ve known he wants to communicate; what he wants to eat, what he doesn’t want to do, what movie he wants to watch. How do I know? Because he’s learned how to use body language (not sign language) to show us some of his preferences. He has also shown us what some of his likes and dislikes are through behavior. When I was in a meeting with his therapists a little over a year ago, I came to the realization that our children, even neurotypical ones, communicate through behavior.

It was an eye opening (or now I’m recognizing they were only half open) moment for me. Even when our children have negative behaviors they are trying to tell us something. Since that juncture I’ve made great efforts to decipher what Jeremiah is trying to say to me, but I still fall short. A perfect example was when he walked up and whacked me on the leg a few weeks ago. My response was a firm, “Ow, be gentle.” My husband, Justin, said, “He’s saying, ‘Hi.’”I still tell Jeremiah to be gentle, but I say “Hi” first.

Wow! The idea that when Jeremiah smacks us on the arm or leg, he’s greeting us, completely changed my view of the encounter and my response. A little background on the hitting; along with being nonverbal, Jeremiah also has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). For him, SPD takes on many forms, but most of the time he needs a lot of intense sensory input. This means he jumps with intensity on hardwood floors, hits tables, chairs, his head, and his knees to get sensory input. Basically he’s not gentle, so he’s not going to come to us and place his hand softly on our cheek to say “Hi” or “I love you,” he will do it with intense fervor as he does everything else.

In the past three weeks I have encountered opportunities to learn about Jeremiah’s nonverbal world, and in turn I share them with you. One was when I talked to Bethany from The Golden Hat Foundation, she brought insight to the nonverbal world of Autism. She was telling me about the movie A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism. Keli, a boy with nonverbal Autism, had learned to use a letter-board to communicate. When he was nine, he wrote his first sentence, he communicated his true thoughts for the first time. He wrote, “I am real.”

Those words floored me. I would imagine Keli’s words aren’t exclusive to him, I nonverbalthink many nonverbal people (don’t forget the children) don’t feel the world sees them for who they are. Bethany added to Keli’s words saying, “They have a favorite color, favorite food…”

Tears sprang up in my eyes (which were opening a little more). My son, Jeremiah, has a favorite color! I know he has favorite foods because his diet consists of three things, I know he doesn’t like some of his clothes because he takes them off, and I know he loves his magna-doodle because he’s always carrying it. What I didn’t realize was, Jeremiah has a favorite color, a favorite outfit, and SO much more. I only know of the things that I can study in him; his favorite toys, activities, whether he likes to be warm or cool (and since there is often a bare bootie running around here in the winter, I’d say he doesn’t mind the colder side).

The second time that nonverbal Autism came up was in a post written by Joanna Keating-Velasco on Here’s what she had to say in Eight Ways to Show Respect to an Individual Who Is Nonverbal:

Not being able to speak is NOT the same as not having anything to say! Following are eight strategies to foster a relationship of mutual respect when interacting with an individual who is nonverbal.

In & Out of the Loop
Just because someone is unable to communicate verbally, it doesn’t mean they are unable to hear. Include them as part of your conversation dynamics. DO NOT talk about the individual as if he or she is not there. Unless the individual is specifically included DO NOT talk about their care needs, challenges or behaviors. Avoid gossiping about others or talking about inappropriate subjects. Also, take opportunities to advocate for them by encouraging others to be considerate

You can view the rest of the article here. I really encourage you to check it out, Joanna has some great points.

Jeremiah is only four, and his comprehension is expanding, but there have been times when we felt he didn’t understand what we were saying. But, maybe he did, he just wasn’t able to follow through with our request. No matter what a nonverbal persons level of perceived awareness, they deserve our respect.

If you know someone who is nonverbal are there any changes you can make to how you treat them? For me there are points the author of the post above makes that I need to work on, such as waiting for Jeremiah’s response, and not talking about him or his behaviors negatively when he can hear me. What do you think of Joanna’s points?

*The Golden Hat Foundation is an exceptional organization that exists to “change the way people with autism are perceived, by shining a light on their abilities and emphasizing their great potential. With proper education and career training, these individuals can truly realize their dreams…”

Share this post or blog with anyone you know who would benefit from knowing more about the nonverbal world. The more that awareness is spread, the more people will be understanding of special needs.
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