The misuse of the term “non-verbal”

In the autism world, it is often the case that autistic people who can’t speak are called “non-verbal.”  It create the assumption that autistics who do not speak are incapable of understanding or using language.  This assumption is not true in many cases, perhaps the majority of them.  So, now for Towanda declaration #3.

Towanda Declaration #3:  Non-speaking does not necessarily mean non-verbal.

The only thing I can really compare this distinction to is the distinction between squares and rectangles.  It is probably known by most that a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not necessarily a square.  Rectangles have four 90 degree angles and 2 pairs of sides that are of equal length and are parallel with each other.  Squares have these properties as well; however, all four sides of the square are of equal length as well.

With the square and rectangle distinction made, we can now explore the distinction between non-speaking and non-verbal.  Non-speaking people do not speak.  Non-verbal people have this quality as well; however, non-verbal people are also incapable of understanding or using language.

So, why is this distinction so important?  All to often, when an autistic person can not speak, it is assumed that they can not understand or use language.  When this assumption is made, the person is given very low expectations.  They may never be taught how to read or write or add.  They are put in centers where they are only taught basic skills and never really learn anything.  On the other hand, when a person is assumed to be non-speaking, that person will be taught how to read, write, and add using facilitated and augmentative communication.  The person is given the potential to learn and grow.  That person is given the dignity of being allowed to learn and grow.

There are many examples of non-speaking autistics who use facilitated or augmentative communication devices to express themselves.  Some of these people run blogs, some have written novels and plays, and some are in college or have college degrees.  There is no way that these people can be considered “non-verbal.”  At the same time, people who do not use these devices are not necessarily “non-verbal” either.  My 17 year old cousin is autistic and does not speak.  However, he can respond to prompts and understands everything someone is saying.  When he responds to a prompt, he is showing understanding of language and he is using the language that was spoken to respond appropriately.  He is “verbal”, despite what many say about him; he is just non-speaking.

When considering an autistic person who does not speak, it is better to start with the assumption that the person is non-speaking instead of non-verbal.  With this model, the person starts with the bar of expectation set high.  The person may not reach it, but that’s fine; that bar can be set lower to meet the person’s needs.  On the other hand, if the person is considered non-verbal, the bar is set lower.  The person may reach the bar, but there is no expectation for them reaching any higher, even if they have the potential to do so.  For more information about this concept, check out Anne Donnelan’s “Least Dangerous Assumption” model.

Until next time, folks, “If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”

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