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. 

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

      • Not quite. It is no longer being given as a diagnosis, but those of us who have already got it as a diagnosis keep it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I use the term Aspergers for my son so I don’t have to spend 10 minutes explaining why he looks ‘normal’ but is ‘on the spectrum’

        Like

  1. I’m worried about this my son is non verbal diagnosed autistic but my daughter which is 11month older than my son is verbal but didn’t start taking til 3 she’s 5 now she’s going through diagnosis now

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just like my son. It can be very fustrating and lonely when people simply can’t understand. He also has a big difference between his level of knowledge and intelligence, emotional age and cronological age which many people can’t grasp or accept.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Between 5th and 6th grade (my son is now finishing up 6th, his first year of middle school) my son was due for another Triennial Evaluation, during which, of course, they gave him the latest in an ever-evolving string of IQ tests. I actually like this most recent version, because it does something — well, SMARTER — than most of them do. That is, it splits things up into ‘Intuitive IQ’ (what’s actually going on in his head) and ‘Functional IQ’ (what he can do about it). Well, when it comes to Intuitive IQ, despite sensory interference in his test-taking, he still came out off the charts, his number ABOVE the highest number for their genius-range. When it comes to Functional IQ, however, he came out as well below average, and that was on a good day. I have to constantly explain to them just how frustrating and infuriating that is for him. He is so freaking brilliant, and so self-aware, but that doesn’t actually let him control his brain or his output, and he knows he gets judged for the worst of how he does, while almost no one knows — and he is constantly being told, directly and indirectly, to doubt what HE knows — of the best he can do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Did your son get tested through the school? Do you happen to know the name of the test? Would love to have my son retested with something like this!!

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  3. I, and my two kids, are verbal. No one has ever understood the challenges we face every day, because we are verbal. This assumption that verbal=no issues/cognitive competence & non-verbal=issues/cognitive incompetence is insulting and harmful.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My daughter, 8 years old, does great at school academically, gets great if not perfect result on each test, exam… yet she is terrified of going to the toilets and soil her pants often because of it, she will be terrified and stressed before any special days or events, she has stomach aches often before school because of these reasons… she is currently being outgrown by her classmates emotionally and I expect the real challanges of fitting in to now begin. Her level of anxiety is so high and she has phobias of dogs and spiders making her everyday life unbearable some days in the summer. If you meet my daughter you will notice how painfully shy she is, to the point she will meltdown and demand my full attention and support totally ignoring me trying to socialize with you… she will meltdown into a 2 year old toddler and go from very verbal and articulate to almost non verbal making baby sounds. If you did not know about her autism it can be quite shocking. At school they almost never see any of that so it took 2 lengthy evaluations 2 years apart to finally get her diagnosed. I worry about her fitting in, now and in the future..

    She is very bright, very verbal but with a very strong need of support and assistance that I worry she will not qualify for as an adult.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand. You are not alone. Just thought you needed to know that. My son has alot of similarities. Everything magnified but if he can work it out people think hes doing great. He really struggles, and hes gotten really good about hiding it lately, but he is going to middle school and we are moving to another town this summer. Is it wierd that i hope they see his issues? I hope, if their mind is focused, and their heart in the right place, that they can see. So he can get the support and encouragement that he needs.

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  5. So TRUE!! Our granddaughter is a maths genius and can rattle off the answers with speed. However, ask her how she worked it out and you get a blank stare, as she cannot tell you! She spends hours on her own, in her room reading anything, as she does not like to socialise even with us.
    Now 11 and about to go to senior school we worry how she will cope with such a large number of students. She does not like to be touched to speak to or with others and is going to find it frightening and difficult to cope with.
    Sadly, because she is so good at maths and has a reading age well above her years the education authority feels she requires NO additional support and “will, in time, come out of her shell” If we had the money, we would pay to send her to a small independent school with few pupils in each class. As we do not, we are stuck in a system that really does not ‘give a damn’ as long as the child is quiet and does not cause trouble!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Call me a “member of the tribe”. Diagnosed HFA at age 67, I’ll be 73 this month; it took me a long time to be able to explain to others how I arrived at solutions to engineering problems they didn’t understand.

      I suspect that for many of us males, the HFA/Asperger’s working memory problem that can sink grades in school is eventually made up for by a continually accessed database of everything read or learnt.

      Turn her loose in a college library; I ended up with a second (post-military) career in electrical engineering – and I never had any formal engineering courses and only a handful or two of college extension courses taken in the military.

      She’ll be learning all of her life; count on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is so true. My 6 yr old daughter is autistic and is very verbal..but expression is hard for her as is many other things. She recites a lot randomly from her favorite tv shows. Her tablet is her favorite past time right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My son is 17 in July 2017 and we are still fighting for a diagnosis. He is verbal, loves anything history based and can tell you anything you need to know about anything. He is the most pleasantly polite young man you will ever meet and in my opinion has been massively failed by the system. He has gone through both primary and high school without a single friend, he doesn’t understand irony, sarcasm, wit, social clues, personal space and the list goes on. He appears emotionless at times and finds it hard to express his feelings. He is currently on a high protein meal plan due to starving himself because his step dad said to him about 18 months ago “I used to be as skinny as you and look at me now” something so innocently said and he took it so literally he’s starving himself. He us 5ft 10 and weighs 7st 6lbs and the eating disorder team have said it isn’t an eating disorder it’s autism…but yet he has gone without diagnosis for all these years. Reading this post makes me more convinced he should be on the spectrum. Thank you xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I could have written this letter. My 8 yrs. old grandson is exactly the same as your daughter.He can recite CD after CD and name all the Thomas engines in order,color, and number without looking.He knows what Dr he is seeing according to which way we go on the interstate.
    He has no friends.That makes me sad.Hoping to try some classmate get together this summer and pray for some interaction.Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I heartily concur.
    My child is 12 and speaks well with a large vocabulary..his speech is often more nonsensical than it first appears.
    He reads above grade level but cant grammatical write a couple of sentences about what he has read.
    He talks to his classmates and sometimes even thinks he has a friend only to have them reject him roundly after a few days.
    The teachers tell me he has friends..that he participates in class.. That he is well behaved and doing ok academically.
    Except he cant recall multiplication facts..which is what all the other math SINCE 2nd GRADE hinges upon.
    So I wasnt at all surprised that he failed the math portion of the end of year testing that decides whether he moves on to middle school.
    And those teachers dont realize that homework takes US hours and hours and often leaves us both crying with frustration.
    They dont realize that by time my child reaches our driveway off the bus from school he is already falling apart and melting down..
    From the intense effort of holding it together and acting like everyone else at school ..
    Or at least as well as he can manage.
    They dont get it that he often says yes when he means no.
    They just dont get it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My son has an eidetic memory, but one of the only exceptions to his proverbial ‘rule’ with that, is math facts. It’s a part of his Dyscalcula, which for him comes from the Sensory Processing Disorder (which you can have without Autism, although if you have Autism, you have at least some degree of SPD).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my, you just described me and my beautiful 10 year old boy-exactly. The inexplicable inability to remember the math facts…the hours it takes to grind through the homework each night, ending with both of us in tears…holding it all together all day, trying to be like everyone else, while mom can just see it oozing out of every pore by the time his hand hits the door knob and he lets loose all of that stress, anxiety, fear, hurt, confusion, rigidity…And, ooooh yes, the teachers who insist that all of this just cannot be, because he’s just so wonderful and “normal” all day. Ugh. Thank you for just letting me know I’m not alone out here. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    • I am a teacher and have taught several on the spectrum. If you haven’t conveyed as much to the teacher please do so. I make many accommodations to fit the different learning styles and situations in my class. My colleagues do as well. All children are individuals and to treat them all the same is a disservice to each one of them. Fair doesn’t mean equal! It is so hard for these kids to keep it together at school. There is no doubt in my mind that many melt down before dinner. It doesn’t make for quality family time spending all night struggling with homework. It does no good to torture your child (and yourself). Make sure if your child has an IEP that you have a provision in there about homework. You should be able to write a note on the homework to say that your child did as much as they could and they should receive full credit.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. My son does the same complex echolalia. He’s 6 and the big wigs say he’s ready for traditional school but his specialists at his autism learning center say he is not. I agree with the ALC. He comes off as rude or confused more often than not when he’s presented with situations where he can’t echo. It’s going to be a long summer of championing for him as our state demands 6 year olds be enrolled in a traditional academic setting. At least I have his specialists on my side. Our only real option may be homeschooling with most socializing done at the local playground and, if approved, at his ALC. It’s all just as difficult now as it was when he was still nonverbal, just a different kind of difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Same here! My son is also 6, and while he’s gotten immensely better at 3 word requests, he’s happiest just scripting all day long from his favorite movies.

      Since Sept we’ve had in-home ABA therapy (anywhere from 15-30 hours per week), and since the end of Jan we’ve also been homeschooling (ABA style).

      My son has basically no interest in other kids, but he somewhat participates on a special needs baseball league now, so we’re at least attempting the socializing thing, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My son is twelve, and this issue has been one of the biggest, ongoing battles we face when it comes to his services, grants for therapy and accommodation tools, his schooling, etc. Although he is verbal, his comprehension is great, he’s developed past even complex echolalia, he has a stunning vocabulary, etc….he has a TON of language processing issues in every direction/facet/element of communication, that can manifest in various and ever-shifting ways from one minute to the next. So, not only does judging his overall level of function based purely on his ability to communicate fail horribly to grasp the complexity of his disorder, his personality, or his life, but it doesn’t even work for judging….his ability to communicate. The thing is, just because he can do it (sometimes) doesn’t mean he can do it consistently, reliably or effectively. One day he might be coming up with original, complex metaphors — in Shakespearean English — to express deep, psycho-philosophical concepts related to the self-awareness of his disability….and the next he can’t get through a one-word answer to a very, very basic question. One day he can provide an interpretive analysis of the nuances of what, and how, someone said something….and the next you have to slowly repeat yourself ten times when trying to make a short, surface-value statement, because he just can’t process more than a syllable at a time.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have two on the spectrum… my daughter is 9 and high functioning from what the doctors say but her ADHD makes it seem worse and she is verbal… my son is almost 4 and moderate to severe and they say he is verbal but it’s all echolalia… when he gets sick or hurt the doctors have to play guessing games to figure out what’s wrong… just recently they had to treat for two different things and cross their fingers that one of meds would help… it’s also very hard raising two very different asd kiddos because they clash like crazy between each other… and people say they look fine and talk but they aren’t the ones with them 24/7 and see the melt downs, the stemming, the lack of communication… they think my son running around in circles is him playing when in reality it’s him having a hard time with something in the environment and is stemming to calm down and readjust himself… I have lost lots of friends because they just don’t understand but I love my autism family because they actually know what we as a family face every day and they don’t question wiether my kids are asd or not…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. That is all so very true and relatable. Thank you so much for sharing that. There are many valid points and examples given, and it’s really nice to hear similar story to my own x

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Very true. My granddaughter who has Autism is very verbal. At 13 I still hear movie lines. The funny thing is where and when she uses them they seem appropriate. My girl is extremely smart and very good at working around her issues. She has gone through all the therapies and I have found Bryan Post of Post Institute Love based approach to parenting most positive for her.

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  15. Thank you for writing this my 4 year old son was just diagnosed with mild asd and it frustrated me because he was behaving at the hospital and flips out horribly mainly when it’s just me or strangers . He is verbal but it’s all from what’s he’s watched and heard I can tell because he magically becomes British at times lol and when I talk directly to him he starts getting angry and says he hates me and everyone . I’m going to share this so maybe just maybe my family will take the time to understand my son and his autism and odd

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  16. My son is 30 . He acts, sings, plays musical instruments and seems completely normal until you listen. “I don’t know if this will hurt your feelings but..I like the new shoes I got” is how he speaks

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  17. My 9-year old ‘high functioning autistic’ son who is also ‘verbal’ is seen as by everyone as having ‘mild’ learning difficulties or mild autism but I know as his mother that underneath his speech there are a number of complex needs which require on going support without which he would not be where he is now.
    I want to commend this mother for putting into words my exact feelings, fears and worries that I have for my son and how I have struggled daily to make others understand him and how his mind works.

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  18. This is my son – he is 3Y9M and very chatty – but we know his words are all over the place and not all of them are related or meaningful. He loves to sing and read – How can I help him to fix echolalia?

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I could nt of wrote that better my self my daugter was assessed at 5 and told yes she has autism .my daughter is now being reassessed to comments she has grown up and is fine and lots of it hormones .OMG. No she is nt fine it scares me to bits she sees no danger she tells u what u want to hear .we have melt downs in public because something did nt flow the way she expected it to.
    God help u if u dont react the way she expects or say the things she wants.I can explain till i am blue in the face and tears running down my face.There is no off button .
    I just wish people would see how hard this is and how emotional heart breaking .Never mind seeing her for a hr try 24 hrs a wk a yr .
    One broken mumx

    Liked by 1 person

  20. This describes my 5 year old son so well. Thank you for sharing your story. My son has ASD and has a great deal of anxiety along with separation anxiety.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. This article perfectly describes my son! I’ve been struggling myself to make sense and put it into words but this is it! Thank You so much, I’ve sent it to friends and family to explain what I couldn’t Xx

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I’m 56 ..
    Born in 1960.
    I survived at school using Peanuts, Julius Sumner Miller and star trek quotes. Usually Spock.

    People with autism were the kids rocking in their wheelchairs outside the spastic centre.

    To find out my son was on the autism disorder spectrum was a huge shock, but not quite as much as finding a friend i hadn’t spoken to in nearly 40 years and have this snippett …

    ‘My son’s been diagnosed as autistic, and it looks like i probably am too’

    ‘What you didn’t know? ‘Cos we all did’

    Complex echoalia… ok.
    Takes a long time to understand new things? Yep.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. My son is 7 and is being assesed for autism. I know from when he was 2 he was very different, I didn’t know how or why but I could just see it in his eyes and in my heart.
    He is very much like your daughter he speaks very Well, he asks many questions over and over again. He gets very angry and walks out of class at school over the slightest little thing and tends to take himself into a little room on his own. He says when he gets angry he can’t calm down because of the noise it’s all to loud so he has to run away to where it’s quiet and if he can he will shut the door and switch the light off. To look at him he looks like a normal child, he plays with others but when his had enough he will walk away to a place where he can be left alone. Iv had people tell me he is just defiant, I need to put my foot down with him ECT but when you live with a child like this 24 7 you know there’s more to it. I get called in to the school 2/3 times a day every day I have to bring him home every lunch time to eat. I have to make sure I get anything I need to get done while his at school as a simple task of going to the shop could turn in to world war 3. I have 2 jobs that obviously are affected by having to go in and out of the school.
    But all this is unseen by many because to look at him and talk to him he is the same as every other child

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Thank you for writing and sharing this. What you have written is so true… general understanding of ASD, in my experience, by most people I’ve dealt with, is very limited and hence not helping the person or the person’s nearest and dearest, living with this condition and in some cases, more damaging…

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Thank you so much for this. My son, now 16 is extremely verbal. I remember a time I prayed he could just talk with me and tell me what he needed. Now, (and don’t get me wrong I’m very thankful he can speak) there are times I wish I could pushbthe mute button for a few minutes. So often what he is saying is in a narrator voice. He repeats things he has learned over and over and uses a voice like you would hear in an educational video. He isn’t engaging in conversation with anyone, just telling a story that interest him. If you try to change the subject it’s very difficult for him to move past it. He does have the ability to hold a reciprocal conversation but it’s often limited and goes back to his interest or current obsession. When it comes to world culture and religions he can go on talking for hours, because he loves to research it. However putting him in a group of neurotypical 16 years olds and expecting him to keep up would be tough. His jokes often go to far, he talks over people and interrupts and he very much tried to control conversations to revolve around him. Often peers see him as odd or rude, sometimes offensive. It’s tough, and sad at times to know how narrow his range of interest is. Reading this made me shout ‘YES’! It’s just not discussed enough! So often our verbal kids are so misunderstood and I really appreciate you talking about the challenges.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. WOW This article perfectly describes my child
    I’ve been struggling myself to make sense and put it into words, and reading this article had opened my eyes a bit more n knowing that I am not the only one
    That is all so very true and relatable. Thank you so much for sharing that. There are many valid points and examples given, and it’s really nice to hear similar story to my own

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Pingback: The difficulties that get overlooked when your autistic child is verbal – Site Title

  28. Wow thanks for sharing. I too have the same problem with my son. He can talk etc so it’s taken up until a couple of months ago for him to be diagnosed with ASD. He is 12, I have been trying to get specialists to see him the way I do his entire life.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Well said, my daughter is also verbal, which is wonderful- I also thought she might never speak, which would of been heart breaking. But when she try’s to answer a question or to ask you something, sometimes it is like she is fishing at the depths of the ocean for something that is often out of her grasp.

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  30. My daughter is like this and everyone says oh there is nothing wrong with her. I’m trying to get a referral from the doctor is there any way i can get a copy of this to show them

    Liked by 1 person

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