A reader asked:
Hello, I am a teacher. I wanted to say thank you for your posts. I work with one student who is autistic and not quite non-verbal, but speaks very little.I found myself talking to her as if she were much younger than she is because I had no way of telling if she was understanding. Your posts have helped me to understand that even though she doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand, and even if she doesn’t, I should still treat her like the 12-year-old she isOn Wednesday I spoke to her to let her know that I was wrong to have spoken to her like a little kid, and that I would now be speaking to her like a twelve-year-old. She seemed pleased. I have ASD traits myself, but I’ve never been non-verbal (even when I couldn’t speak, I still signed), so I didn’t really understand that non-verbal doesn’t mean not understanding necessarily. Thank you.
Oh wow. That is heartening to hear. It’s wonderful that you realized that it was wrong to talk to her like a young child, and that you apologized. That is such an important sign of respect for her. Thank you for taking this seriously, and thank you for telling me about this.
I want to add that, in addition to talking to her like a 12 year old, you probably need to develop better skills at listening to her like a 12 year old.
Probably most of the people you’ve known in your life who had a small expressive vocabulary or spoke only sometimes were very young children. Her speech is not like that. She is thinking much more complex things than a young child is capable of. If you’re not used to listening to nonverbal or minimally verbal folks who are not babies, you probably don’t yet know how to do so in an age-appropriate way.
So it’s not just the way you initiate talking to her that needs to change, it’s also the way you respond to what she says. She has a lot to say. Possibly through her words; possibly mostly through her actions; possibly mostly through body language. But, in any case, she is 12 years old, and she has a lot of 12 year old things to say.
You can learn how to listen to her better. It’s a matter of respect, practice, and skills you can develop.
- You can get a lot of mileage out of asking yes or no questions. (For some people, it helps to prompt with “yes or no” if it seems like answering yes/no questions isn’t a skill they have all the time) Eg: “Did you bring a lunch today – yes or no?”)
- You can also use other kinds of two-option questions. Eg: If you know that she wants a book but she can’t tell you which book she wants, you can put your hand in the middle of the shelf and say “Up or down?” “Left or right?” “This one?”.
- You can get even more out of asking a question with an open ended and closed response. Someone who can’t give you a meaningful answer to “What do you want to do?” may well be able to answer “Do you want to draw, or do something else?” Or “Is the answer England, or something else?”
You can also listen to what she says, make guesses about what she means, tell her what your guess is, and ask if you are right. For instance “You just said juice several times. I think that might be because you want to drink juice. Do you want juice, or do you mean something else?” Or “You just said “We’re all friends here!” and you sounded angry. Are you upset about something?“ Or “You just said “Separate but equal!”. Are you talking about discrimination?“
I’ve written about listening to atypical communication here, and here, and I wrote a more general post about how to provide respectful support to an autistic student here.
For some further perspective on this, I’d highly recommend reading the blog Emma’s Hope Book. It’s a blog written by the mother of a 12 year old autistic girl whose speech is unreliable (with some posts from her as well), and they have a lot of really important things to say about how to respect people whose communication is atypical.
Short version: Your student has things to say, whether or not she has figured out how to say them. She is already saying some of them (in words or otherwise), whether or not you understand her communication. The more you assume that she is trying to communicate with you, and the more you assume that what she says is worthwhile, the more you will be able to understand her and teach her in age-appropriate ways. Scroll up for some examples.