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. 

There is nothing ‘high’ or ‘functioning’ about her autism at all.

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My daughter attends her local mainstream school. Her grades are average and her behaviour perfect. She is mostly happy to go to school and is never later with her homework. She appears to be an ideal student and school report ‘all is well’.

But all is far from well with my child!

She no longer receives occupation therapy, or speech therapy or any other support in school. Her grades are considered a reflection of the fact she is coping well and therefore her autism is deemed to be ‘high functioning’ simply by the fact she can answer simple times tables questions or write a story.

But there is nothing either ‘high’ or ‘functioning’ about her autism in any way!

The dictionary defines high as “great, or greater than normal, in quantity, size, or intensity.”
My daughter has high ANXIETY, high EMOTIONS, high SENSITIVITY but not high autism!

She struggles with noise, touch, change, lights, attention, demands placed on her, eating, drinking, toileting, self care, socialising and understanding the world. Just because she can read a book, sit quietly in a classroom and sing in assembly does not make her autism any less.

The dictionary defines ‘function’ as “the kind of action or activity proper to a person, thing, or institution; the purpose for which something is designed or exists; role.” Is it ‘proper activity’ for a person to break down in tears and make herself sick because the school has changed her gym day for a few weeks? Is it ‘proper activity’ for a child to be unable to interact at all with other children in the school playground? Is it ‘proper activity’ for a child to stop eating and drinking completely due to anxiety?

Her autism does not disappear when she is at school. All that happens is she conforms. She ‘follows along’ like a sheep in the hope that no-one notices. Inside she is breaking up, welling up and churning up but all anyone sees is a child who can write in a jotter, sit on a seat and tidy up when asked.

A child with autism in mainstream school should never be assumed to have ‘high functioning’ autism simply by the fact they are in a ‘normal’ school classroom. Just because they have the same uniform on as all the others does not mean they are the same.

Inside they are either feeling sick, shaking with anxiety or screaming. The flickering light is causing them pain, the humming of the radiators is making them want to cry and the child next to them leaning on their desk or touching their pencil case is causing them to want to run away. Can you see any of that or do you just see a child with a pencil in their hand writing?

School don’t see the pain in her eyes when I pick her up at three o’clock. They don’t see the teeth grinding, the skin picking and the disengagement. They don’t see the lining up of everything, the screaming and the cowering in a corner. They are not dealing with the sleepless nights begging me to come in bed beside her or the full on food refusal because her anxiety is making her ill.

They look at test scores, conformity, and academic skills and decide that my child at best has ‘high functioning autism’ or at worse is ‘fine.’

She is neither.

She has autism. Simple as that. She is every bit as autistic as her non verbal brother who has severe learning difficulties and attends a special needs school.

Don’t dismiss her struggles based solely on the school she attends.

School can say what they like but there is nothing ‘high’ or ‘functioning’ about her autism at all.

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