Autism Glossary: Nonverbal – It doesn’t necessary mean unable to speak

Nonverbal - Dave's Autism GlossaryThrough the years I have learned several new terms of which, prior to J, I was oblivious. The first one from my personal Autism Glossary I’m going to share is “Nonverbal.” I’ve heard a lot of confusing words as they relate to autism and diagnoses. Nonverbal was one I thought I knew. Nonverbal means someone doesn’t talk, right? Nope.

J is considered nonverbal. Well, then my original definition was definitely wrong because J talks all of the time. In fact, he often talks almost constantly. However, I have no idea what he is saying. Its not random sounds. I hear patterns that repeat. Often he uses those patterns daily. I also have come to learn that when he is talking like this, he isn’t directing the words/sounds to anyone. He’s just talking to himself, but you can tell from the tone and volume whether he’s happy, excited, or upset. This speech is known as jargon.


Now, if that’s all the vocal sounds he made we could argue whether or not that is actually talking. I’m thrilled to say that that’s not all. J definitely can talk. Another verbal speech he does is scripting. That’s another word from my Autism Glossary. It means what you might think. It’s like he is reading a script. He will memorize words from shows he watches like Peg + Cat, Dinosaur Train, Thomas, Super Why (all PBS Kids shows). Often the scripting is multiple sentences.

Also, J will script what we say. He doesn’t only immediately repeat, but will use a phrase in context at a later time. The context in which he uses the phrase is often the reverse of Nonverbal - Haircuts by Dadwhat he means. For example, J hates having his hair cut. Haircuts are almost (but not quite) impossible. We used to be able to have it professionally cut while holding him, but for the last few years I’ve been doing it at home. When he would get upset we would softly tell him “It’s OK.” That is now a phrase J uses, but if he does, you better believe it is anything but OK.

Thirdly, J will repeat words back to you if or when he wants to. Bye, juice, and train are examples of words he will sometimes say with prompting. He also uses a very few to communicate what he wants without prompting. “Let’s go”, “Come on”,”Car”,”Down” (usually means get up), and “outside” are some examples.

Learning is a two way street

I think we have learned as much from J as he has from us. We have gotten good at word puzzles. Do you know what “Yellow Pirates” means. Well, neither did we at first, but we kept narrowing it down until we figured it out. Amazon Instant Video has seasons of Peg + Cat. A couple seasons have pirate episodes. The episode he was really into that he watched at his Grandparent’s house was in Season 1. Amazon Instant Video has an image of Peg + Cat with a different colored background for each season. Season 1’s background is yellow. Hence “Yellow Pirates.”
Peg Cat - Nonverbal
Its really ingenious I think when looking back on it. It made perfect sense to J and eventually it made sense to his parents too.

Why is he considered nonverbal?

So back to our definition. J is considered nonverbal because he doesn’t typically respond to verbally to cues. If you asked him a question he wouldn’t respond. With prompting, depending on factors like mood and interest, he may repeat a word back or make a choice of two things. You just have to get creative. This may sound difficult, and it often is, but it is a huge improvement in communication from where we were a few years ago. We are so thankful to his teachers and therapists who work with him everyday. It may seem like a small step, but its a giant leap for our family!

Read more of my posts on the topic of Autism here or by clicking on Autism Posts in the menu bar at the top.

Dave Carty

K12 district technology administrator, Google domain admin, Certified Google Trainer.

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