When my son was very small he had some speech, clock (tick-tock) duck (quack) and was obsessed with lights (eee-lat-lat-lat accompanied by a very clear pointing finger). On one occasion we were watching Casualty, there was a dramatic car crash where a car rolled over several times and ended up on it’s roof. Little Jamie toddled over to the TV and observed, with great concern “oh dear”.
At the age of two this emerging speech disappeared, a diagnosis of autism and SLD followed and, subsequently, a ‘non-verbal’ label was added. A few years later the whole process repeated itself with my youngest daughter: autism, LD, non-verbal. For years I accepted this label using it myself to describe the ‘low functioning’ end of the autistic spectrum that is our world. “They will probably never speak, they’ll always be locked into their own world, their disabilities are lifelong with little hope of significant improvement.” Over time, however, I started to question the accuracy and implications of the term non-verbal.
Various Augmentative and Alternative systems of communication (AAC) were introduced to our family. Makaton, a simplified form of sign based on BSL, was first. Jamie didn’t take to it but the eldest of his two little sisters, very bright and ‘Neuro-Typical (NT) sure did. Before her first words came she used the signs she’d observed, with ‘drink’ and ‘biscuit’ top of the list! The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) made it’s way over the Atlantic and into my son’s classroom in 1999. Again, he didn’t take to it, at that time, but a few years later his ‘non-verbal’ youngest sister did. She, later, rejected PECS for sign which is her primary, and extensive, form of communication. Through my three children I was, unknowingly, observing a real-life long term example of non-verbal autistic language development, that was to become an inspiration to me.
Whilst my kids were growing up I decided to study. With the incomparable flexibility of the Open University, what started off as an ‘Open’ degree evolved into a Humanities degree with a specialism in English Language. My study of linguistics was revelationary. Hold on a minute, language is so much more than ‘speech’, and the label ‘non-verbal’, with all it’s implications, doesn’t really fit.
Now a graduate, I’m exploring language development in more depth for my own interest, combined with personal experience and I can say this with 100% conviction: not only ‘non-verbal does not mean nothing to say’, it also does not mean ‘cannot and will not ever be able to develop communication now or in the future’. My daughter, at 15, has an ever expanding vocabulary of over 600 signs and uses a mixture of signs, part and full words to communicate, she might be ‘non-verbal’ but that girl has, can and does ‘say’ a lot for herself! Now 23, my son is beginning to use PECS and Makaton to functionally communicate needs and choices, he is also using ‘conversational (modulated) babble’ to communicate, that is he is conveying meaning in the pitch and intonation of his babbling: mood (happy/sad), affection, ‘singing’ etc. AND, just the other day, in the midst of this babbling, when he was obviously distressed and in pain, I clearly heard the words ‘oh dear, dear, dear’. Not so ‘non-verbal’ after all then.