Words aren’t everything

I’m thinking about words, about words and thinking, about words and how they shape how we think.  A surprising thing you find out when you have an autistic child is that communication is more complex than you ever imagined. Communication goes beyond mere words – how you communicate shapes the world and how you interact with it.

As neurotypical (NT) people, we tend to take communication for granted. It’s just something that we do that goes mostly unnoticed until we have a problem.  We seldom stop to think about it. we only know it’s not easy when we screw up with someone we care about because: we didn’t read their tone of voice, didn’t read their body language, or didn’t interpret their facial expression in the way they meant us to. Basically, it’s easy till it’s not.

In many cases, autistic people have difficulties with words and/or spoken language, on top of difficulties with the subtleties of unspoken conversation. Temple Grandin speaks of “thinking in pictures“, that words are a second language for her. Karla Fisher, programmer at Intel who is autistic, speaks of “seeing datapoints” and the difficulty in finding words to explain the connections she sees.  Karly Fleishman is “non-verbal” – she cannot talk, but she can TYPE – she was unable to communicate to her own family with words for much of her young life.   Her ability to type and to commuincate in a language that those around her can understand has expanded her world AND theirs.

My son loses his words when he is upset. He learned to talk very early, and he is a highly verbal child. But when his emotions overwhelm him, the only word that comes out is “no”. He can’t process everything all at once. If he has to deal with what has upset him AND with people talking to him to “make it better”, etc. – it’s too much to take in and he will get more and more upset. A safe place to be, some time to calm, and his words come back. But these instances reinforce to me how important communication is, how different processing words is for autistic people, and how words are NOT the only form of communication.

There is a phrase I came across in the autism/neurodiversity blogosphere – “behavior is communication”. It means what it says, and neurotypical people know this on a surface level, but it seems like we sometimes lose this knowledge when it comes to those who are not verbal. Babies communicate through behavior – what they do, how they sound, how they move, how they hold their bodies, how they act tells us how they feel. Teenagers communicate through behavior (silent treatment) – they don’t say a word, but we feel the sadness, the tension, the anger, EVERYONE communicates through behavior.

People who are on the autism spectrum, who don’t have or who lose their words, communicate through behavior. OUR job is to pay attention, to listen, to respect the message REGARDLESS of it’s method of delivery. We may, as NT’s, prefer speech, but it’s arrogant to think it is the only way, the right way, the best way for every person. It is the easiest way for most of us, but to assume that it is easy for everyone is lazy.

Don’t be lazy.


3 thoughts on “Words aren’t everything

  1. We may, as NT’s, prefer speech, but it’s arrogant to think it is the only way, the right way, the best way for every person.

    Like the stereotypical American tourist in France who grumbles about the refusal of the French to speak normal English like everyone else. 😉

    You’ve explained it really well, I think. Thank you for writing this!

    • Thanks for your feedback! It helps to know that I might be on the right track with my son. I know I’m a lucky mom where communication is concerned. His challenges are so subtle, and in my head, I se that they can become much bigger if they are taken for granted. Input from others on the spectrum that have lived through some of the same challenges helps me understand a bit better, and helps me ask him questions so we can figure out where the trouble spots are so he can know what to ask for when he needs help. I’m very thankful to you.

  2. Pingback: It’s all about the language | Walkin' on the edge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s