Non-verbal autism is associated with any autistic person who doesn’t talk. However, “nonverbal” means “no words”. The real intention with the term “nonverbal autism” is to describe a non-speaking autistic person.
What if, regardless of terminology, that speaking autistic person is actually non-speaking? Read on to learn what non-verbal autism looks like.
- Symptoms of nonverbal autism
- What ISN'T a sign of nonverbal autism
- What being a non-speaking autistic person feels like
- Frequently asked questions about nonverbal autism
Symptoms of nonverbal autism
What does non-speaking autism look like? Look for these 5 indicators.
1. Prefers gesturing and pointing
Gesturing and pointing are two of the first signs of non-speaking autism, Deafness, and other medical conditions. Children who gesture and point as their main means of communication are most likely to pick up sign language.
2. Delayed or absent speech
If your autistic child has yet to begin speaking, beyond the expected age to learn how to speak, this behavior could be a sign of non-speaking autism.
That said, a crucial part of child development is learning how to process language and to listen. Thus, your child could instead be learning to process and deliver information.
They could be listening to you carefully, so they understand every word.
3. Prefers visual supports
Autistic people often struggle with verbal instructions. However, if your autistic child actively prefers visual supports over spoken ones to communicate with you, this is a sign they’re non-speaking.
Another reason for preferring visual supports over spoken communication could be because the sensory input of your voice, or other people’s voices, disrupts their senses. In this case, non-speaking communication supports would benefit both of you.
4. Stutter or struggles to articulate what they want to say
Parents of autistic children often mistake their autistic children as being speakers, just because they speak.
However, non-speaking autistic people who learned to speak because they had to are masking. Autistic masking is the act of behaving in a way that able-bodied and non-autistic members of society find palatable.
Many autistic adults going through the unmasking process or experiencing autistic burnout are realizing that they wouldn’t speak if they didn’t have to. Speaking is not natural to them in this case, and it shows in how they speak.
Even in the event of language processing difficulties, non-speaking autistic individuals who speak as a form of masking often do not struggle with alternative forms of communication. This begs the question: Is the issue truly language processing, or is it the fact that they’re struggling to communicate unnaturally?
How much would you struggle if you had to speak a language you weren’t great at in order to communicate with the majority of people around you?
Non-speaking autistic children do not lack language. If people without autism still have language even when they’re not speaking, then why are nonverbal autistic children “without language”? All behavior is communication, even when unspoken.
Your non-speaking autistic child is struggling to speak in attempt to communicate with you in your language, when what they need the most is for you to communicate with them in their language.
5. Child with autism going nonverbal
When autistic people demonstrate a loss of skills, this is known as autistic regression or autistic burnout. Autistic burnout causes regression or loss of skills, essentially bringing the autistic person to their base, unmasked state.
Autistic burnout happens to autistic people who endure extreme stress from attempting to maintain a version of themselves that is against their natural capacity. Autism shutdowns will also mimic a speaking autistic child going nonverbal.
If a shutdown lasts longer than a week or two, this could actually be a sign of autistic burnout. The issue could also be extreme stress, discomfort or pain (e.g. tooth pain).
Occasionally going non-speaking is common in autistic people. Our needs and functioning capabilities vary. Speaking might feel too forced or the wrong kind of sensory input.
What ISN’T a sign of nonverbal autism
Non-autistic people have a tendency to mean what they don’t say and say or write what they don’t mean, which is confusing and probably why so many people in general are bad at communicating.
Stimming behavior, such as hand flapping or rocking, has little to do with an autistic child’s ability to speak. Autistic children regulate their emotions and needs, and cope with life, by engaging in self-regulatory behavior (stimming).
Not making eye contact doesn’t mean your child is non-speaking. Stereotypically, autistic children and adults don’t make eye contact. If you watch a TV show featuring an autistic character played by a non-autistic actor, you’ll see an overexaggerated avoidance of eye contact. (It is as annoying as it is harmful.)
What being a non-speaking autistic person feels like
As an autistic adult, when I am non-speaking I feel:
At first, you might open your mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. Or maybe a sound does exit your throat, but it’s a squeak or after a yawn.
The people around you refuse to hold space for your attempts at communicating with them. Unless you “use your words”, they’re not going to listen to what you say. By using your words, you must speak or else there is “nothing to listen to” and only your melodramatic, attention-seeking behavior to watch.
This is a powerless feeling. The experience is like trying to tell people downstairs in a house that a bedroom upstairs is on fire, when you’re known as the family prankster. The room truly is on fire, but no one is willing to listen or go check. Instead, they dismiss and chastise you, perceiving you to be the problem.
Non-speaking autism doesn’t need curing. Rather, autistic people need proper supports and acceptance so they can thrive in life and their communities. Learn how to communicate with us instead of expecting us to communicate with you.