What Is “Non-Verbal”?

On one of the many fora I visit, a parent recently asked what “non-verbal” really means.

The line between verbal and non-verbal is a difficult one, I think, when it comes to Autism.  To most folks, “non-verbal” implies “no speech”… which isn’t the truth of the matter.  Most of our kids make some kind of noises, after all, which may or may not be words…

And as I’ve mentioned here, the Monster clearly can speak his mind.

The best definition I’ve heard for “non-verbal” is “lacking the ability to use verbal communication in a meaningful way”.  It doesn’t imply an inability to say words, and it doesn’t imply an inability to chain words together into longer phrases.  It moves the discussion from “can your child speak” to “does your child say things that communicate a coherent idea?”

And the Monster only shows verbal tendencies sometimes.  He’s improving by leaps and bounds, but he’s not consistent.  By a lot of measures, he’d still be defined as largely “non-verbal”.

It’s hard sometimes to define the Monster as not being non-verbal when he does speak so much.  A lot of words and phrases have been coming out of his mouth for quite a while now… but until recent months or so, many of them have been pure echolalia – he’s repeated commercials, songs, snippets of television shows.  And while they make sense when you take them as sentences, they’re not really communication that coherently expresses an idea in his head.

On the other hand, he’s been slowly but surely moving over towards scaffolded phrases.  Granted, one gets very tired of “Can I have [X] please?”, or “Give [X] to [Monster].”  But it is a good utterance that expresses a coherent, spontaneous thought/need.  It might be nice to have him give us a narrative of his day or use concrete examples of past or future tense, but it’s definitely the road towards being a verbal child… when he wants to talk.  His speaking can be sporadic, really – he’ll often be sitting around the house quiet, and unresponsive to folks trying to engage him in conversation until he needs something and isn’t having the need taken care of on another’s initiative.

Where I get tripped up is the apparent difference between school and home.  In his daily report yesterday, the teacher mentioned to us that he’s been putting together good phrases on their word board when it is his turn in class.  Whether he’s saying them aloud or not, I’m not entirely certain – I get the impression he is, but I’m not really sure.  The major issue in this is that he’s apparently far more verbal in school than he is at home… which makes me wonder how we, his parents, are supposed to judge exactly where he falls on the verbal/non-verbal spectrum…

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