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Non-Speaking Versus Non-Verbal: What is the Difference in Autism?

The terms non-speaking and non-verbal may sound identical to many people. But there is a different and important distinction which is vital for us to consider with autistic people.

The term "verbal" has been defined to describe when a person understands and uses words, any words, in any way. So, "verbal" includes using spoken words. But it also includes situations in which words are written or signed or typed or pointed to even.

The term "speaking" means using words we form with our mouths and utter out loud.

One important aspect of the definition of "verbal" is that it includes an understanding of both receptive words (ones we hear, read) and the production of words in any manner (ones we speak, sign, write, point to).

People are typically never completely non-verbal, as this would mean that they have no understanding of any words whatsoever, such as their name ("Tyson") or a word they commonly hear ("snack" or "shirt"). It would be almost impossible for kids, teens, or adults to have no receptive language whatsoever, even receptively.

So, when it comes to autism, let's be precise in how we use our words to describe their language skills. The reason that the term "non-verbal" is quite frowned upon and even considered unacceptable today is because autistic people who might be labelled "non-verbal" actually typically have receptive language.

The term "non-speaking" is a simple term which means a person does not form and utter mouth words. But they may communicate with words in a myriad of other ways.

As autistic children grow and develop, we should always step back and consider the development of communication to be far more important than the development of spoken words. Speaking may come in time - and it may not. But imagine the frustration with not being able to communicate needs, wants, emotions, and frustrations.

This is part of the reason that AAC - augmentative and alternative communication - is such an important first step for intervention with autistic children.

More from Dr. Lisa Marnell and Kids Master Skills . . .

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