The “non” in nonverbal ASD

The commonest question by far has been “Is your autistic child verbal?” And my simplest response has been “No! She’s nonverbal”. But then we get into the details of it and they say “But she talks. Why did you say she is nonverbal?” I know it’s confusing and I blame a lot of this confusion on how colloquial the term “verbal” has become.

So then I modified my answer to ” My child is essentially nonverbal”. Now this led to more questions instead of less and I had even more explanations to give. What does “essentially nonverbal” mean? Why am I calling her nonverbal when she can label objects and animals and can request for things? Wouldn’t she be called verbal? It became exhausting. People corrected me constantly and tried to make me feel good about my child’s verbal acumen.

Regardless of what people say and what I want to believe about how verbal she is, speech therapists have always said something altogether different. They’ve always, without a pause, without any hesitation, without a single thought into how it’s like a knife through my heart, said it plainly and explicitly. “Your child is considered nonverbal despite having a vocabulary of about two hundred spoken words, many rote sentences down that she uses appropriately, and having normal gestural language. She’s nonverbal”. And I’m thankful for them for keeping it honest. It really gives me an idea of the work that I need to do and the people I need to see to make language happen for her.

So now when someone asks me what her verbal capabilities are, I try to give a short but comprehensive answer that can help them assess their kiddo too.

“My child can talk , can use gestures, can name many objects, can be playful when she wants to and use spontaneous language. She can identify animals, objects, people and places. She can identify emotions too. But she’s not conversational and that’s what we are working on”.

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