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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