by Kris Turman | 4:54 pm

Does someone who is nonverbal ever talk?

Based on studies completed in recent years, anywhere from 25- to 30% of people diagnosed with autism are considered to be nonverbal.   This means that the individual is not able to speak or does not speak more than a few words and therefore cannot communicate with others using speech.

Nonverbal autism is not an official diagnosis, and there is not a lot of research on this topic.   There is no clear line designating when a person with autism is considered verbal or nonverbal.   Here are some examples of what is typically considered to be nonverbal autism.

  1. David is an individual with autism who is able to use a few words in a meaningful manner but is not able to carry on a conversation or answer questions.   For example, David might say “go” or “walk” to indicate that he wants to go for a walk, but would not be able to tell you where he wants to go.
  2. Amy has autism and can speak, but cannot use language in a meaningful way.  Instead she “echos” scripts from television shows or movies she has watched, or repeats phrases taught to her by therapists.   Using these scripts is not to express ideas or wants, but more as a way to calm or stimulate themselves.   This type of speech is called echolalia.
  3. Steven cannot use spoken language effectively, but is able to use a digital communication device.  Others like him may utilize written or typed language, picture cards or American sign language.   Once these individuals are able to communicate using one of these methods, their ability to interact with the world around them is drastically improved!

Why doesn’t my child with autism talk?

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding autism is why some individuals cannot (or will not) talk.   Adding to this mystery is the fact that many people with autism who are nonverbal can and do choose to communicate using other options — American sign language, picture cards or digital tools.

Some people with autism who do not speak also have childhood apraxia of speech — this is a neurological disorder that causes extreme difficulty with speech.  But most with nonverbal autism do not have apraxia; they simply do not speak.   Differences in brain function may account for the lack of spoken language, but there is no agreement at this point as to what those differences are or why they impact individuals differently.

There are ongoing studies utilizing EEGs to measure brainwaves and MRIs to measure brain activity to try to figure out this puzzling aspect of autism.  In addition, there are studies measuring eye gaze.   The one thing that all researchers agree on is the fact that people with nonverbal autism seem to understand more than what they communicate, but nobody is certain how much more they understand.

Does lack of speech mean lack of intelligence?

For many years, researchers assumed that nonverbal individuals with autism were Intellectually Disabled (ID) because of their typically low scores on IQ tests.   Anyone who receives a score of 70 or below on certain tests is considered to be Intellectually Disabled.

More recently, it has become clear that typical IQ tests are not good tools to measure the intellectual ability of children with autism — particularly when those children are nonverbal.   The reasons why include those listed here:

  1. Nonverbal children with autism face challenges when it comes to understanding and responding to verbal information.   Most IQ tests are based on the test taker’s ability to process verbal information.
  2. Most children with autism struggle with understanding and responding to social expectations — another component of IQ tests.
  3. Children who have sensory issues may be distracted  by things that most children would not.   A nonverbal child is not able to tell the interviewer about the issue.
  4. If the tester is not familiar with working with children with special needs, they may not get a true picture of the child’s intelligence because they are not able to interact with the child.

Ideally, IQ for nonverbal children with autism should be measured by both nonverbal IQ tests and observations that are not related to the test itself.  The tests should also be administered in settings familiar to the child and the testers should have actual information about the abilities of the child.    While many nonverbal children may not cooperate or fully understand the intent of the IQ test, they might be very capable of solving complex math problems or puzzles.

Most agencies do not yet accept the results of this type of evaluation at this time, even though research indicates they show a child’s true potential.

Will my child learn to talk?

This is a very difficult question to answer.   Some children with delayed speech are able to learn to communicate with spoken language.   Some may be able to speak fluently while others only learn a few words, if that.   Many therapists prefer to use the term “preverbal” rather than “nonverbal” when referring to people with limited speech capabilities.

One theory indicates that the higher IQ level a child has, the more likely they are to learn to speak.   However, this theory is very difficult to prove as it is so hard to determine the actual IQ level of a nonverbal child.

Many techniques are used to improve spoken language.   These include speech therapy, behavioral interventions and play therapy.    Some studies also indicate that music therapy may also have a positive outcome.

Do you know an individual with nonverbal autism?  If so, how do they communicate with others?   Please leave a comment below!






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