Understanding Nonspeaking Autism: Why This Does NOT Mean Unable to Communicate

When an autistic person does not speak, it is known as nonspeaking autism. Nonspeaking is not a diagnosis. It is the terminology used to describe individuals that communicate through modalities other than spoken words.

Nonspeaking Vs. Nonverbal

For clarification, the terms nonverbal and nonspeaking have been used interchangeably for many years to describe autistic’s communication strengths and challenges. In more recent times, terminology in the general population has shifted towards using the word nonspeaking.

Nonverbal is defined by Merriam-Webster as not involving or using words and lacking or appearing to lack the ability to engage in speech. Nonspeaking is defined as not involving spoken lines and not speaking or being able to speak.

Autistics that use nonverbal modes of communication can and do commonly engage (respond) to speech through methods that can be described as nonspeaking.

Nonspeaking Autism is not Noncommunicative

A common myth is that nonspeaking autistics have nothing to say. This is far from the truth! Communication is not limited to the ability to speak words.

In Our Journey Towards Real Communication, the parent of an autistic child working with an RDI® consultant describes the communication expectations that she had in her child, and how her child grasped and now uses nonspeaking modes of communication:

For us, communication was speech. I wanted Daniel to speak and had no idea speech is only a small part of communication. I let Daniel repeat the words I said, but it was often unclear and without him understanding the meaning. He would stutter too. We were happy to hear his words with no meaning in them. We just wanted him to be verbal.

My consultant wanted Daniel to develop other components of communication, non-verbal parts like gestures and facial expressions without using speech. That was the very first thing I found difficult to start with. Daniel didn’t respond to my gesture. It was very frustrating. It was very difficult even to get his glance. He was mostly in his own sensory world. Today, Daniel is now using gesture and other non-verbal strategies to communicate with us. He is also learning to ‘speak’ with the help of technology (LAMP on his iPad).

Ido Kedar, an autistic author, blogger, and advocate for communication rights, found his voice. He had (and has) something to say, and he readily says it! He communicates through his writing despite being nonspeaking:

I am an autistic guy with a message. I spent the first half of my life completely trapped in silence. The second – on becoming a free soul.

I had to fight to get an education but I succeeded, graduating high school with a diploma and a 3.9 GPA. I am continuing my education in college. I communicate by typing on an iPad or a letter board. … I hope through my work to help other autistic people find a way out of their silence too.

RDI® and Reciprocal Communication

Development is established through communication. Communication is vital to exchanging information and learning, as well as the building of relationships. But, spoken words are not a requirement for communication.

RDI®’s Speech Therapy Goals:  The attainment of success with any goal in the RDI® program is rooted in the development of Guided Participation between parent and child—build the relationship first. Ideally, both parent and child are participants, and both are engaged. This is foundational to the goal of reciprocal communication and interaction.

For example, reciprocal communication can be encouraged by simple activities with the child through a process of:

  • Sharing experiences
  • Limiting verbal language directives
  • Slowing the rate of communication
  • Increasing the use of gestures
  • Increasing the emphasis on vocal tone, pacing, timing, and volume
  • Limiting questions, commands, and prompts
  • Practicing patience (children sense impatience and become discouraged)
  • Increasing opportunity without demanding response (declarative language)

Related article: Non-Verbal Communication Tips

In the RDI® program, our focus is not on language when we talk about speech therapy, it is about RDI® lifestyle and daily life opportunities, simple life activities that promote mutual communication.

The main purpose of communication is not instrumental, to get something from another person, instead, it is about experience-sharing. Experience-sharing is a catalyst to learning about others, and to learning about ourselves, which is monumental to the development of communitive abilities in an autistic child.

Our goal is not the typical focus on the development of correct speech or motor skills that promote speech, nor is it to build academic or social skills, rather, our focus is developmental growth through example and participation between the parent guide and the child. We do not concentrate on the acquisition of language, instead, we place emphasis on non-forced interactions with the child, which becomes the essential building block that opens the world of communication up to both the parent and the child.

Join A Community of People Who Get It

Our Online Community provides education with access to the most up-to-date autism research (and much more), resources for parents including private groups and ways to collaborate with other team members, and the option to work with a consultant at-a-distance.

Reach out to us for more information or start your introductory membership today!

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