Five Myths About Having A Non-Verbal Child

I am a parent of a non verbal child. He has always been that way and possibly always will. It’s our ‘normal’, so much so that I often forget when others look at my son or ask him a question that they have no idea he can’t speak. Sometimes I want to tell the world everything about him, because he can’t do so for himself. Other days I want to keep everything about him private and locked into my heart because…well mostly because people, sadly, can be very ignorant.

I know people don’t mean to hurt and they are mostly just curious and well meaning about life with my beautiful son but there really does seem to be so many myths about what it is like living with a non verbal child (or adult). Here are five of the most common ones I have had said to me:

1. “Your house must be so much quieter than mine!”

This one doesn’t offend me but it does make me laugh. Just because a person can not speak does not mean they can’t make noise! My son can scream so loud he frightens the birds away for miles. He makes a lot of noises both with his mouth and with his body. He cries, he laughs and he shouts…it’s just words he can’t make, not noise! He is at least ten times louder than his very verbal sister!

2. ‘You must have no idea what he wants then if he can’t speak?’

This one makes me realise just how much emphasis we seem to put on spoken language when, in fact, it is actually only a small minority of what we as humans use to communicate. I carried my son for nine months, when he was a newborn baby I interpreted his cries when he was hungry, tired or wanted comfort. Nine years later and I still know how to interpret his actions and needs. I can follow his eyes, see his face light up in laughter or he can lead me by the hand to what he wants. He is an incredibly gifted communicator, actually more gifted than many of us who have become complacent in our use of spoken language. He uses google street map to take me to the doctors when ill (you can read more about that here), he uses photographs of places we have been to to request to go again and he uses objects like the TV remote to say he wants to watch TV. He may not have speech but he can still get his message across. It is us who need to learn to listen not him who needs to learn to communicate.

3. ‘Give him time. One day he will come out with full sentences!’

I know people want to be positive and offer hope. I get that. I understand that people don’t understand severe autism, global delay and learning difficulties fully and base their experience mostly on what they have read or heard from the media or friends. People don’t mean to hurt me when they say this, but it does hurt. While my heart would love my son to speak to me suddenly in sentences, with the exception of a miracle, that isn’t going to happen. There are only three recognisable vowel sounds in his ‘vocabulary’ at almost ten. He has ‘o’ (sounded out like awww) and ‘mmmmm’ and ‘ahhhhh’ when eating but these are considered so infantile his expressive language has been assessed at approximately 6 months old. It has remained at this age for three years with no signs of any improvement.

As hard as it is for society to accept; there are people who never develop speech and remain non verbal all their lives. There is offering hope to people and then there is false hope. The latter can destroy and damage so much. My son MAY say some words one day but the reality is he is more likely to remain non verbal. I can accept that and I hope one day others will too.

4 ‘I bet he must be so angry and frustrated all the time.’

I can understand why people would think this. Of course, like any other person, my son has times of frustration and anger. Mostly these, like any other 9 year old, are actually because he can not have his own way rather than directly due to his communication struggles. He IS understood and he IS happy. My son has never known any different. It isn’t like he had speech, became reliant on it like us, then lost it. He has always been non verbal and he has found his own way to communicate on his terms. If people take the time to get to know him they can tune into his needs and wants fairly quickly. Out of everyone in my family he laughs more than any of us so his inability to speak certainly isn’t making him angry or frustrated all the time, anything but!

5 ‘That’s so sad. You must be so heartbroken all the time.’

While it may be annoying having your child whining or nagging for something when you are busy, or asking a million questions all the time, how would you feel if you never heard your child say ‘mum’? Of course I get sad sometimes, I would not be human if I didn’t. There are moments it catches me off guard, like when I see my daughter singing Christmas carols or when someone asks me what my son wants for Christmas and he can’t tell me. On the other hand I have become much more grateful for the times my son climbs on my knee at 9 to show me something on YouTube he likes, or the times he squeezes me hard and still wants me to lift him up even though he is almost my height. When he takes my hand as he climbs out the car or rests his head on mine, he doesn’t need words to say how much he loves me.

Yes a part of my heart feels the pain of never hearing his voice but I am anything but heartbroken all the time. I have a bond with my son which is like nothing else. Silence says everything when we are just sitting together and those moments refresh me whenever I need it.

There are so many more misunderstandings about children like my son. Sometimes I deliberately don’t tell people he can’t talk because they immediately seem to stop talking to him just because he can’t speak to them. That upsets me, but more importantly it upsets my son.

I have had other parents tell their children to avoid my son out of fear that perhaps his non verbal status is somehow contagious. People generally equate non verbal with ‘not with it’ which could not be further from the truth with my son. In fact if he ignores you it says far more about you than him!

Being non verbal is not holding my son back, society is.

It is ok to not know about something you don’t have personal experience of but please be willing to learn.

I am a parent of a non verbal child. I don’t need to be his voice because he is perfectly capable of making his own needs and wants known in his own way: He just doesn’t use speech to do so.

My friend and fellow blogger Chris Bonnello hit the nail on the head with this (to see more of his fantastic memes and blogs see http://www.autisticnotweird.com)

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I Could Hate Autism…but

I could hate autism tonight.

I could hate the fact my son has caused so much damage to my house again, both in financial terms and in emotional terms. Things of sentimental value smashed, toys broken, floors flooded, window blinds torn. I could hate the fact he has screamed for hours on end in frustration and anger and attacked anyone who came near him. I could hate the fact his sibling is having to deal with all this and live in a volatile situation she has no control over.

When the child who has caused the damage has a diagnosis of autism I could hate autism so easily, but I don’t.

Many would argue, and I would have done so in the past too, that my son’s autism is to blame for tonight. It was his rigidity of thinking and inflexible thought processing that were the triggers. It was the fact he could not control everything and his sheer need for set routine that started it all. It was the fact his communication needs are so high and he was frustrated at not being able to verbally say what he wanted. It was his lack of social awareness and inability to understand others viewpoints that meant he caused thoughtless damage to other’s property. Everyone of these things are key traits of autism spectrum disorder after all, so surely autism was to blame for it all?

Autism isn’t why my son is violent. Autism is not always the reason my child has meltdowns and screams.

There is more to my child than autism.

There is more to anyone than autism.

Let me be clear: autism does not make people violent. I do not hate autism.

Am I upset about my evening and the damage that was caused? Yes very much so. I am more upset, however, at the fact people will see tonight as something fundamentally down to severe autism. Severe autism does not mean a child will be violent. I can not stress that enough.

Let me say this: my son is 9. Yes he has autism. Yes he has no verbal communication. Yes he has learning difficulties and other complex needs. His challenging behaviour IS linked to his complex needs and these do play a factor in what happened tonight but they are not the full story.

I could hate autism but I don’t.

Instead I hate the fact I misjudged my son’s level of anxiety to the point I let him get to the stage of full meltdown.

I hate the fact my tiredness and frustration meant I never showed my child the patience and understanding he needed.

I hate the anxiety and frustration my son felt because his world felt so out of control and unordered because I never ran his bath at 6pm when he felt I should.

Autism was’t to blame for tonight: I was.

My son is a vulnerable child. Whilst he does need support to learn to wait and be more gentle (as does any child,autism or not, and many adults too!) he also has a right to be understood, be listened to and have his needs met regardless wether he can speak or not. I am the adult in all this and it is ME who needs to change and mature not him.

Do you know something…my son could have had a bad night, been frustrated and had a challenging evening even if he didn’t have autism. He is a 9 year old boy with developing hormones, a growing body and determination like any other child. We all get angry and children need space to be forgiven and grow as much as we all do. Have I ever wanted to throw something in temper at times? You bet I have. I have just learnt as an adult that there are better ways to deal with anger. My son just needs time to learn that too. Autism and learning difficulties may mean that takes a little longer and it’s my job to be more patient during that process.

In all the chaos of tonight, in all the broken toys, wet floors, and smashed items I found my son had done this on his bed. A line of cars to remind me how beautiful, ordered and perfect autism is.

I could hate autism but there is nothing about autism to hate.

Just to add I ran that bath, apologised to my child and we made amends. Yes he has autism and learning difficulties but his laughter, his energy, and his forgiving spirit know no bounds. One of the most amazing things about his autism is he will wake up tomorrow with no agenda, no grudge and a love of life that makes everyday wonderful.

I could hate autism but I love my son far too much for that.

How an Accident Broke my Autistic Son’s Trust

My son has autism. He also has learning difficulties and no speech. I am not going to lie; everyday is a struggle. He is 9 now and slowly we have learnt strategies that help both him and the rest of the family cope.

We have learnt to use visuals to aid his understanding.

We have strict routines for school mornings and bedtime.

We use ‘first/then’ so he knows that one thing follows another.

We use social stories.

We give him plenty of time to process what is happening and what we are doing.

We let him chose between no more than two things because anything more confuses and stresses him.

We get by day to day. We have screaming and frustrations but by and large we stumble through.

But what happens when an emergency or a crisis happens and you have no time to do any of the above?

Two weeks ago I was driving my car on a very fast road with my son with me. I have been driving for over twenty years and never been involved in an accident. I explain to my son hat was going to happen using words and visuals. I was picking up a family member then we would get his sister from gran’s house and then go home. He screamed at the thought of transitioning from his comfy seat at home with YouTube on his iPad to having to sit in the car. I was patient and gave him time to process. I strapped him in and made sure he was comfortable and then I set off.

It was all going exactly like I had explained to my son in his social story. It was such a simple story with a photo of mums car, a photo of my brother’s house, my mums house, his sister then home. That was how it was all meant to happen.

Except it didn’t.

On the journey home we were unfortunately involved in a major car accident. That wasn’t in the ‘first and then’ or the social story and there was certainly no visual of my smashed up car and inflated air bags!

This is when non verbal autism is serious. In an emergency situation how do you help a child with severe autism and limited understanding cope?

How do I explain he can’t get out of the car when cars are speeding past us at 70 miles per hour? How do I know if he is injured from the crash or even in shock? He just sat there in total silence.

When the paramedic first arrived he asked my 9 year old his name. My son never answered. He asked him his age. Silence. My 9 year old has less language than an average 1 year old and all of a sudden the reality of that crushed my heart. The paramedic then asked me if I had an idea if my son was injured. He can’t even point to parts of his body in the nursery song ‘head shoulders knees and toes’ so how on earth can he say if he is in pain or where?

All three lanes of high speed traffic were halted while my car was pushed over to the hard shoulder for safety. To my son this was wonderful! He thought the car was moving again and I should get in and drive him home. That’s what was in his social story after all!

If I thought getting my son out of the house and into the car an hour earlier had been hard I had no idea! Now I had to get my son out of my smashed up car and into the back of an ambulance. He has no concept of what an ambulance is. He was not for getting out of my car.

Autism is hard. In an emergency autism can be impossible!

I could not suddenly show him visuals. I had no pre-prepared picture story. I could not give him adequate time to process! His life was in danger and sadly I had no choice but to pull him out that car and drag him into that ambulance. I wish he could understand why I had to do that but I don’t think he ever will.

My son is ok. The next day a lot of bruising appeared but thankfully it was all superficial from his seat belt. The real damage though is to his trust and no-one can give me any idea when that will heal, if ever.

While my injuries will heal over time (ligament damage and bruised bones) I can at least understand what happened.

My son with autism has no concept of ‘emergency’ or even ‘different’.

He won’t entertain any social stories now. He just screams when we say ‘first and then’ and he throws away all the visuals we have.

He can not process the fact that an emergency happened and things had to change.

A friend said about the accident ‘thank goodness nothing was broken except the car’.

Sadly the crash broke much more than a vehicle.

An emergency situation broke my son’s ability to trust me and there is no insurance that will cover that.

Why I will no longer attend anything at my autistic son’s school

I don’t want to be one of those parents that never turns up for anything at their child’s school, but next year I can assure you that I will be that very parent. I won’t be at any parent engagement events, or school shows and I will be avoiding assemblies like the plague! I won’t even be at parents night and my child won’t even see me at the annual achievement assembly either.

I am not a bad parent though, far from it.

This is NOT what I want but I have come to the conclusion it really is for the best.

In fact making this decision has broken my heart.

Yet my New Years resolution to not attend anything at my son’s school is one New Years resolution I fully intend to keep.

Why? Well because it is what my son wants.

I never thought my child would want to be the only child in the school nativity without his mum or dad sitting proudly watching. I never thought my son would want to collect his annual achievement award with no-one to cheer him on. The thing is though; I am not autistic, he is.

He sees the world very differently to me and this is a great example of that. I see his school as somewhere I want to be highly involved with and engaged with. I want the emotional feeling of seeing my only son being on stage and taking part in things I never thought he would be capable of. I want photographs and memories to treasure of him dressed in costumes and joining in. I am really wanting it all for me. Isaac though sees things very plainly: mum belongs at home not school. End of.

Seeing me at school, for whatever reason, causing him far too much distress. That distress, confusion and even anger, has now built to a point where it is no longer safe for me, or for staff, to have me at school events. Isaac gets so upset at seeing me and so anxious he can harm himself and others. That distress lasts a long time as he just can not process the fact I have appeared somewhere that, in his mind, I should never be. When he comes home from school his anxiety is set off again as he sees me back home and he must wonder how I was at his school 14 miles from home just a few hours before. He doesn’t have the cognitive or processing ability to understand fully that I could drive there and back (after all he never drives so how could I?) and the whole evening becomes challenging for the whole family. Things get thrown, broken, we get screamed at and he is in obvious distress. We can not ‘talk it through’ since at 9 he has no speech at all. It is awful and heart breaking for everyone.

So I have had to lay aside my own desire to see my child at school. I have had to take the very difficult decision to never see another nativity play he is in, or visit him in his classroom. It is even harder when I know he is actually excited to see other parents do these things…just not his own mum.

I could disguise myself and sit at the back of the hall I guess but what if he did somehow see me? Is it worth the upset it causes him?

I will continue to support his school by sending items in, communicating via his home school diary and giving money as required. I want much more, of course, but I hope they understand that this is the best way now. I pray they take photos that I will never be able to take and maybe even record events on video if possible. It won’t be the same as being there for me but what can I do?

I miss out on seeing my son do so much already. I miss out on hearing his voice, or teaching him to ride a bike, or even playing a simple game with him. I just never thought I would miss out on seeing him at school too.

New year, new term, and a new way of putting my son’s needs before my own.

This is the right thing for my son, for his sister and for the whole family. I have tried for five years but that’s it over now. From now on I will no longer attend anything at my son’s school and for us this is hopefully going to help make the next year more manageable and pleasant for us all.

Sometimes though I just wish autism was a little less hard on my heart.

I Don’t Want To Be An Autism Parent Anymore


The day started far too early. There was no sweet cuddles in bed or a little voice asking for a drink; no I was woken as usual by screaming. I have had day after day, month after month, year after year of being woken by screaming and I don’t want that anymore. 

I don’t want to wake up to a smell that would make you want to vomit and bedding that is fit for the bin more than the washing machine, because yet again it is covered in something that ought not to be seen by anyone else. I am so tired of that now. 

I don’t want to sit on my couch in the middle of the night looking at my child and wondering what I did to have a child who sees no point in sleeping, who at 8 still can’t say ‘mama’ and who still thinks the world revolves around his needs only. 

I love him more than words could ever convey but I don’t want to be an autism mum anymore. 

I want to be a mum who has fun with her child rather than doing therapy with them. 

I want to walk my son to school and talk to his friends instead of sending him in a taxi to a place where I am a stranger to them. 

I want to be able to talk to my child about the fact it is his birthday soon and discuss what he would like to do to mark that day. 

I want to be someone who takes my child to bowling, teaches them to ride a bike or even goes to the movies with them. Instead the only place I ever take him to is hospitals or respite. 

I am tired of missing out on everything. I am tired of never having party invites, knowing nothing about his day at school, having to still dress him, having to take adult nappies and wipes with me wherever I go. 

I don’t want to be an autism parent anymore.  

I am tired of holding my child as he screams in public again. 

I am tired of the never ending judgement, the stares and the horrid comments.

I am am tired of carrying around my broken heart as a result of the interventions and therapies having achieved nothing. 

I simply can not bear the thought of my child as an adult knowing what society is like. 

I am tired of meetings. 

I am tired of phone calls from his school. 

I am tired of fighting for everything but then being accused as having an attitude or people thinking I act like I am entitled. 

I don’t want my child to have autism anymore. This is not a ‘different way of seeing the world’ that he has, or ‘a wonderful gift’. This is a child about to be 9 years old who can not say ‘mum’ or use a bathroom himself. This is a child almost my height who still can’t put his own clothes on, brush his own teeth or dry himself after a bath. This is a child who can never ever be left alone, who has to have everything the same all the time, who self harms and wanders. This is a child still with the mind of a toddler who will require others to look after him his entire life. 

Who would want that for their child? 

Who would want that as a parent? 

Today I don’t want to be an autism parent any more. 

The problem is I have no choice. 

So I strip that bed, bath that child, cook him that breakfast as I always do and let him sit on my knee while he rewinds the same ten seconds of video on you tube he did yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. 

Nothing changes much in my house, except my feelings. 

Today I am tired. I don’t want to be an autism parent today the same way any other parent may feel about not wanting to be the mum of a toddler who tantrums daily or a baby who has reflux or the partner to someone with Alzheimer’s. We all have days when we are just down about the life we have. 

Yet we carry on. We dust ourselves down, search for some positives or listen to some music. 

Tomorrow is a new day. It will probably start off with screaming again too., but maybe tomorrow I will be stronger, more hopeful, more upbeat. 

Maybe tomorrow I will want to be the autism parent I need to be. 

Maybe tomorrow. 

Ten Seconds That Prove You Should Never Underestimate A Non-Verbal Autistic Child. 


People don’t expect much of my son. 

Speech and language therapists have all but given up on him, encouraging me to just accept he is non-verbal with limited understanding.

School take him on ‘environmental excursions’ rather than reading and writing because…well he can’t hold a pencil despite having been in school for four and a half years so he is never going to read and write is he?

The learning difficulties mental health team wrote to us explaining his challenging behaviour and long spells of screaming are just part of his complex diagnosis and are unlikely to change.

The public looks down on him in distaste.

Children his own age mock him in parks and soft plays when they see he can’t talk and is still wearing nappies.

Even as his mum I sometimes find myself wondering what the future holds.

It is easy to understand why. My son has a long list of diagnosis all of which are life-long conditions. He development is years and years behind what is ought to be and he requires support for all his personal care. He is a non-verbal severely autistic 8 year old who is still very much living in his own world. 

Well that is what I thought too. That is until I happened to turn my iPad video recorder on this evening while he was playing with his iPad. What I captured changed everything.

He had been handing me his iPad on and off for the last half hour. He was pressing the ‘google’ app wanting me to type things in to let him scroll though images. It was exhausting trying to guess what he wanted to look at with no eye contact, no words to tell you and no clues. In the end, frustrated myself, I handed him the tablet back and said ‘Isaac google something?’ I never for a minute even thought he would understand let alone google something so incredible it had me in tears:

He clicked on the search button and within seconds he pressed the ‘i’, quickly followed by ‘s’, then without hesitation he pressed the ‘a’ right beside it twice, before pausing for a few seconds then finishing his search with a ‘c’. In total it took less than 10 seconds for him to prove you should never underestimate anyone!

He just typed out his own name and I had no idea he even knew it let alone how to spell it!

The speech therapists may be right about him not speaking but he clearly understands far more than they realised.

School thought he would never be able to read and write…well he may not be able to hold a pencil cold but he just wrote his name using a keyboard on an iPad so who know what else he may be able to type?

The learning difficulties health team may be right about his behaviour being part of his comprehensive and complex diagnosis but what if so much of it is frustration at understanding but unable to communicate back?

Maybe this ten second video may help the public see that you can not judge anyone by lack of speech or lack of eye contact or lack of social skills. 

It only took my son ten seconds but in that ten seconds he has proved to so many that we must never, ever underestimate anyone, especially those with non verbal severe autism.

Does my son still have difficulties? Absolutely. Should I ‘not expect too much of him’? Never!

Behind the flapping, you tube on repeat, screaming exterior is a brain hard at work piecing things together in his own way in his own time. 
People don’t expect much of my son: I do. He just showed me why.

Four things my severely autistic son has taught me


Having a baby is the most wonderful, humbling, exhausting experience I have ever known. I thought it would be a challenge but I would learn and gain so much.

 
Then one day my baby was diagnosed with severe autism.

 
Everything I had ever known about parenting suddenly changed.

 
I went from being the teacher to becoming the student and despite my son having no ability to speak he has taught me more than any speaker, any book or any course every could.

 
Here are five things my severely autistic son has taught me about life:

 
1. If you enjoy something, repeat it! 
All too often in life we are told to ‘move on’ or ‘grow up’ or ‘you are too young for that!’ My son has no concept of age appropriateness nor is he affected in any way by peer pressure. He enjoys a ride on a train to the same station to see the same elevators over and over again. He watches the same videos on you tube over and over. He presses the same button of the same toy repeatedly and still laughs.

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Isaac has taught me that if something fills your heart with joy never be ashamed to relive that. Life is to be enjoyed over and over and over again. I need to go back to finding joy, just like him, in the simplicity of life over and over again.

 

 

2. Stop worrying about other people!
Isaac has no awareness of others. He is not afraid to get on a roundabout even if a group of older children are in his way. He is not afraid to flap, spin, laugh and clap even if others don’t join him. Bullying goes right over his head. Comments from others don’t affect him. He could not care what he is wearing, where others are going or wether he is included or not. He does not aspire to be politically correct nor does he want to lead the crowd. Instead he is blissfully content being who he is, exactly how he wants to be.

 

I want to be more like that.

 

Life is not about doing what everyone else is or pleasing others. He is different, and happy to be so, and there is a lesson there for all of us.

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3. There is other ways to communicate without using words.
I talk far too much. Most of us do. Isaac can not talk at all so he relies on other, much more basic ways to communicate. He sits beside me if he wants a hug, he screams if he is unhappy or scared, he takes my hand to lead me, he finds photographs of things he wants.

 

To most his communication is too basic, too rudimentary, to learn anything from. They are wrong. Speech is not a ‘higher’ level of communication but rather a way to communicate that is actually too easily misunderstood. We can say we are happy yet our body language says otherwise. We can say we love when we actually don’t. My son simply shows me in beautiful and simple ways. They say actions speak louder than words and perhaps we all rely way too much on spoken and written language when a simple hug or smile would convey much more?

 
4. Don’t worry about the future, just enjoy today!
Isaac has no concept of ‘future’. He lives in the here and now and at 8 is just about coping with the basic idea of ‘first and then’. He has no worry about politics, or religion or current affairs. He has no concerto of wars, shootings or terrorism.

 

He lives in the moment.

 

He eats food and enjoys every item with no consideration for cost or sell by dates. He is as content to eat an out of shape vegetable from a low cost supermarket as he is eating out in an expensive restaurant. As long as he gets to eat he does not care! He never stresses about money or where it will come from neither does he desire anything of any real value. He will play with a coat hanger flapping it for hours without any idea that most would view it as trash. While we may not be quite as able to ‘live for the moment’ as he is we certainly could learn from his care free lifestyle and worry much more about today than the future. First today, then tomorrow could be a motto for us all.

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Isaac will most likely never read, or write or live on his own. Does he care? Not an ounce. He has zero idea about toilet training and he is not in any way worried what anyone thinks about that. He wakes up every morning happy. He laughs at the same you tube clip that he laughed at yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that too! He drags me to the cupboard for food and is neither brand aware nor cost aware.

Life is simple. Life is fun. Life is about today. He dances to his own beat and I am proud of him.

 

He brings me delight every day. He has so much to teach us.

 

He may be severely autistic and non verbal but the world is a better place for having him in it. 

 
People tell me he needs to be more like us. I disagree. We need to be much more like him. 

 

IMG_1466A version of this blog first appeared here