The difficulties that get overlooked when your autistic child is verbal

I am blessed with a daughter who has a large vocabulary and clear dictation. She can read fluently and make up complex sentences. She can remember accurate facts about things and repeat these readily. She can make choices, recall events and express her opinion.

As a result of all of the above it is assumed (wrongly) that her autism is mild, has limited impact on her life and something to be of little concern about.

People are too quick to assume if a child is verbal that everything is fine. 

Let me assure you that just because an autistic child can speak it does not mean their autism is mild.

Having speech does not mean a child necessarily understands what you are talking about.

Having speech does not mean there are no learning difficulties.

Being able to talk does not mean a child can effectively communicate.

Most of my autistic daughter’s speech is something called ‘complex echolalia’. She remembers sentences and phrases from things she has read or heard and uses them to allude people into thinking she is coping socially. This is a common coping mechanism in girls with autism. They become adept at hiding their difficulties by quoting from others be it from movies, books or friends. It took a highly skilled speech therapist to diagnose this in my child but once pointed out it was so obvious. When she was younger we could pick out phrases from Thomas Tank engine, or Peppa Pig or sentences from well read children’s books I would read to her at bedtime. Her vocabulary was not being used independently but more ‘cut and pasted’ from one situation to another. This is much more common with autism than people realise.

Your child may appear to be talking but is it spontaneous language or an echo of something they have heard many times before but do not actually understand?

People assume because my daughter can talk that she is socialising. ‘She chats to friends in the playground’ is a common phrase used by schools to assume a child with autism is socialising well. What in fact she is doing is listing every  ‘shopkin‘ she owns in alphabetic order or inappropriately telling another child they smell awful today! It is talking and it is to another child but it is not social reciprocal play and she is not making friends!

Many also assume because my child can speak that she can not possibly be anxious! That is a myth. Anxiety can manifest in so many ways and if asked a direct question my daughter will attempt to answer even if her anxiety is making her feel physically sick. Anxiety in verbal people with autism can actually make them say things that are considered rude or hurtful or even cause them to repeat the same phrase or question over and over. These are ‘coping mechanisms’ to help them cope with the extra stress of certain situations.

It is assumed because she is verbal that she understands emotional and intention. That is like saying because a baby can walk they can do ballet or play football! It is dangerous and worrying that even teachers assume because a child has the physical ability to speak that they are able to cognitively answer complex emotional questions like ‘why did Billy hit you? Or ‘how do you think I feel about you saying that?’ A verbal child with autism may still struggle with emotions and verbalising events that have happened. They still struggle with seeing things from other perspective or being able to break down facial expressions. We need to remember they still have autism even if they can speak and not make assumptions based solely on the fact we appear to understand what they tell us.

My daughter can speak but don’t expect her to tell you if she is in pain or where. Don’t expect her to understand metaphors or euphemisms or jokes. She can not grasp double meanings and understands language completely literally. ‘The sky looks heavy today’ to her means it is about to fall down! Don’t stop her half way through her lists or even her sentence as you interrupt her echolalia and therefore her brain’s ability to decipher the world around her.

I am eternally grateful she can speak. I have a son who is entirely non verbal at 8 and I know the pain of never hearing your child talk.

However, I also know the pain of seeing my child’s difficulties ignored just because she is verbal.

We must look at autistic children individually. We need to look past the words they speak and see beyond the sounds we are able to understand. Under the surface of speech lies so many other difficulties that require ongoing support. 

If you know someone with autism who can speak never make the assumption their autism must be mild. There is so much more to autism than just being able to talk. Words hide much more than we ever think. 


101 thoughts on “The difficulties that get overlooked when your autistic child is verbal

    • Still reading this in 2018. I’m Autistic, much like your daughter, it seems. I copy/pasted this article’s link into a file I call “Snapshots for Amy”- that’s my therapist’s name. When I read this, I felt like I was reading about myself. At 40 years old, I still don’t have a formal diagnosis and will likely never try to get one, since my therapist is willing to work with me to find what works, knowing that I refuse anything like or actually ABA.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is the best explanation of verbal hfa or Asperger difficulties I have read so far. If only all teachers would read this because many of them make obtaining support so difficult due to the assumptions that you have highlighted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on A Different Kind of Rainbow and commented:
    Brilliant explanation. N can talk and has a particularly large vocabulary but so much of his language is from movies and YouTube videos. Unless you spend a lot of time with him, this could be easily missed and you could be led to believe that his speech is completely typical and that he understands everything you say, when in fact it is very far from the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ty for sharing. My son is in the realm but able to speak and process better Than some. Due to that when he has a meltdown people assume it from lack of discipline and it is a tantrum. So frustrating.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Another fabulous post. I’m loving your blog. I’m so sick of people thinking my son doesn’t suffer or struggle because his autism is ‘mild’

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think that my daughter is autistic, she struggles with her own emotions and the feelings of others.she would be by any other judied as rude or in sensitive. She is verbal, bright,eloquent and is very stronger willed but in some situations a spider or something at school that is more difficult she will have a complete meltdown and have to be diverted completely to calm her down,she finds it difficult to understand other peopleside needs or opinions and her way is right even if it’s not.I know something is not right but what can I do to help her?

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  7. This is a great description and a very concise account of the problems that can exist with verbal autism. One thing I would add (as a VERY verbal autistic) is that people should not simply assume that verbal responses indicate that an autistic is actually communicating, or indeed, even “There”. In my own experience, I have developed a sort of “answering machine” that can deal with other people when *I* am busy with something more interesting or urgent (for me). This can function so effectively that I am often unaware that an entire “conversation” has taken place and the other person has left the room.

    I can trace the development of this “answering machine” over several decades. When I was very young all it could say was “No”. My parents though it was somehow “cute” ant that I was just being a difficult child, but then, that was back when autism was not well understood. Over time it acquired other words and phrases and with practice it has become quite adept at acquiring vocabulary and fooling people into thinking *I* am talking to them. I dont mean to suggest anything like split personality, because there is no consciousness in what it does. If you ask anything that requires actual thought (“what is your favourite food?”” or “what is 6 +3”), it shuts off, hits me over the head with a baseball bat (figuratively, but it is very jarring and can result in me being very angry when I finally do respond) and forces *me* to answer.

    Today, it can toss out all sorts of seemingly appropriate phrases to get another person to go away (Not now. OK. Sure, whatever you say. Can we discuss this later. Fine. Do what you like. Please, cant you see Im busy) . . . and though the other person assumes they are getting a response, in actual fact I am not even aware that they are in the room. Obviously this can have serious social repercussions when someone comes back later and says “But we already discussed this!!!” My long-suffering wife

    I guess the point Im trying to make is that verbal responses from an autistic person do NOT mean that they are communicating.You should take great care (especially with younger children) to verify that the responses contain sufficient logical skill and awareness to indicate that you are really getting through. Just saying “Uh-huh” or “Yeah, OK, whatever” is not necessarily a sign of communication, or even awareness for that matter.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you for sharing these truths.
    My autistic, verbal son,now 22,has learned how to deal with his challenges and to accept them.
    Not easy, but it is very possible for our children to grow up and lead “normal” lives IF they are fortunate enough to embark in a career that is the focus of their individual strengths. For my son it was working on machines, specifically tractors. He works on a very profitable private farm and is loving life !

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a great way to explain to others how children with autism has hidden problems. So many times I have family and friends say they can’t see anything wrong with my diagnosed son who is in special school because he talks and plays normally in a known and controlled environment. Our son is very similar to your daughter and I Started noticing this copy and paste In my son a year ago when I would ask him why he hit someone at school again and he would guess what the correct answer was based on previous conversation. It made me realise, he may be responding to my question, but he hasn’t got a clue what I’m actually asking him.
    Thank you for sharing this x

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I understand completely. My 18 yr old son is very vocal but can’t understand what play is. He will sit beside someone and copy their motions. He doesn’t follow direction at all. Thinking outside the box is one he doesn’t get. Also, no sense of humour. At 3 my brother told him Walmart had sense off humour on sale and he asked if we could go shopping. To this day he can’t manage money. In his mind he can, but reality is he can’t.

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  11. Thank you so much for this post – I didn’t know about your blog but I followed a Facebook link to the post and the description of complex echolalia sounded much like my daughter. Before I read it, it never occurred to any of her family or nursery careers that she might need checking out for ASD. She has now been diagnosed as having moderate ASD, with strengths in many areas and potential to achieve a lot if she gets the special support she needs. If it hadn’t been for your blog, she might have gone for years more without diagnosis. Thanks again, and all the best for you and your twins – you are all in my prayers.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi thank you for writing. Its helps to people like me who is forever worried and noticing these symptoms but everyone thinks he is fine. My 3 year old is like this. Great vocab but finds it difficult to catch what i speak. Sometimes he is not interested. He knows what and where questions but why questions i have not even able to start. He cathes some phrases and uses appropriately. But no interest in a continous conversation. He is asking for food now. Does things intelligently. But communication is tough. Doesnt say ‘yes’ yet. Doesnt care Mostly when i speak in sentences. But he is learning new things everyday. No other obvious signs. He is in waitlist for evaluation. So what happens to this type of kids? What is their future? Can you guide me to some info? Thanks again. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is so familiar and also the reason my son lost his PIP Payments, talking does not mean he understands what he is saying, I wish people would get this

    Liked by 1 person

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