Nonverbal Communication for Beginners

Many months ago, my son’s therapist was trying to go through a play therapy activity with him that he was not even remotely interested in doing. 

I had just finished telling her that he was following simple instructions when she told him, “all done,” half way through the game. He immediately smiled and relaxed. 

Then she said, “you’re right, he definitely understands ‘all done’!”

As we’ve navigated all manner of evaluations for the past two years, I’ve always gotten surly when the question about following instructions gets dropped. Evaluators don’t want to listen to what they perceive as a dillusional parent, but just because he doesn’t obey their commands, they think he can’t understand.

And it turns out, this is a thing. So much so that a blog article like this is necessary

At the Institute on Communication and Inclusion conference, which we’ve just returned from, and I began writing about in yesterday’s post, Tracy Thresher typed, “… couldn’t let anyone know I could read and I understood what was said to me the training gave me the way to communicate with others.” On the Wretches and Jabberers website, Tracy wrote, “My communication is paramount to my well-being and is key to my being an active citizen.” He goes on to say, “I may appear to be a man shrouded by a cloak of incompetence but if you will take the time to listen to my typing you will understand I am intelligent.”

This is the sort of thing that drives me nuts. People who can’t speak can still understand. This is relatively established in child development. The idea that nonverbal autistics can’t understand is based on bigotry and discrimination. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one frustrated that our culture’s limited understanding of autism seems to come from a lowest common denominator NT point of view. These holdover ideas from hundreds of years ago need to be burned to the ground. Let’s just start over, world. Start from scratch. Even basic knowledge of how people learn, how the mind creates new neurons, has changed dramatically over the last 10-15 years. Awareness isn’t working. NTs aren’t getting the message. 

However, many people are familiar with the idea of nonverbal communication. Certainly, anyone who has gone on a date would have a passing interest in learning about it. And it’s clear that while an autistic person can be nonverbal, they still find ways to communicate even before they learn to read and write.

Dear world: nonverbal does not mean an autistic person can’t understand you. Please adjust your shitty expectations accordingly.

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