All Communication is Valid: Why it Might be Hard for an Autistic Child to Speak

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 7

by Adina Levy

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Show Notes:

We’re tucking in to this idea that All Communication is Valid. Busting the ableist bias that speech is the best way of communicating.

In this episode I share some of the reasons why it might be hard for an autistic child (or anyone!) to speak.

More non-speech might be needed whenโ€ฆ
Speech skills are hard for someone (physical/motor skills or motor planning)
Language skills are hard
The content of language in that situation is complex
Emotions are heightened
They’re experiencing sensory dysregulation
The situation is new
The situation is less preferred
Other people around arenโ€™t familiar, connected or trusted
Whenever someone wants!

Speech isn’t the end goal… Communication & relationship is!

Learn more with me about this topic and many others!

Professionals: My next Neurodiversity Affirming Practice 2-hour online Intro Workshop is Live + recorded – live on Wednesday 26th April and recording available whenever you are, for 12 months – https://playlearnchat.com/neurodiversity-affirming-practice-intro-workshop/ 


Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play Learn Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world where neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.

Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.

Lately, I’ve been thinking, talking, listening a lot about the topic of ableism.

Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities, based on the belief that not having a disability or not being disabled is preferable or superior to having a disability or being disabled. One of the ways that ableism shows up in our society, in our work, in our lives is having a preference for speech, over non-speech communication. So today we’re going to talk about the idea of all communication is valid and understand why it might be hard for an autistic child to speak.

Now let’s just pause a note that these points don’t just apply to autistic children.

Autistic adults and non-autistic people as well, might very well experienced some of these same factors that affect how much they feel like speaking or are able to speak in any given situation.

However, the focus of my podcast episode today is about supporting autistic children to feel comfortable, to communicate in any way that is right for them.

So the idea, all communication is valid.

It’s all about stepping back and considering how we are supporting people to communicate and to learn, to communicate in ways that are right for them in any moment. Some of the ways that people communicate include speaking also known as speech or mouth words, writing. Pictures, emojis, gestures, keyword, sign, sign language, Visuals pictures, AAC devices. So speech generating devices that share a message. When you press a button. We communicate through behaviors through taking someone’s hand to something that you like. We communicate by throwing our plate on the ground when we’re finished with our food, or we don’t like what we’ve been offered. There are so many different ways that people communicate.

We all naturally use so many of these different communication methods every day in every interaction. However, what I find is generally as society preferences, And prizes speech over non-speech communication.

A little side note here. You might note that I’m not talking about verbal and non-verbal communication. Because the language we use needs to be a little bit more precise than that. Verbal is talking about words and language, and language and words can be represented in so many different ways and understood and shared and thought about in many different ways that did not involve speech.

So while many of us might have been taught or might be used to hearing the language of verbal and non-verbal communication, it’s actually not an accurate term. And it diminishes the idea that a person who is non-speaking still has the ability to communicate and have the representation of words and language in their mind.

If that language shift is a little bit odd or confronting for you have a deep think about it. It’s okay to make that shift slowly. You might also want to check out my podcast episode one Language Matters.

So now that we’ve got this idea that all communication is valid. I want to share today. Some of the reasons why it might be hard for an autistic child to use speech. I think understanding the deeper reasons behind why something is challenging for someone, can help us meet them where they are, and it can also help us work with them to support them. And build their ability to communicate to interact. To connect with them and to help them feel safe.

There are eight main reasons that I’m going to talk about why more non-speech might be needed or might be used by an autistic child.

Number one speech skills might be hard for them to use. I’m talking here about the motor skills or the motor planning, the physical ability to produce speech. It’s a complex task.

There are a lot of different components that go into the ability to speak and to produce voice. It’s a very complex task. Many of us learn to do it quite easily, and we take for granted just how hard and how complicated the act of speaking is.

Many autistic people have co-occurring conditions, including Dyspraxia and when we’re talking about speech, we’re talking about Apraxia of Speech. So some children might get a diagnosis of CAS or CAS – Childhood Apraxia of Speech.

All of this is talking about difficulty coordinating physical movements that is quite common for autistic people. I for one, I’m a very clumsy person. My whole life. I’ve labeled myself as clumsy or uncoordinated. If I ever catch a ball, it’s more by luck that I’ve caught it rather than by actual skill or coordination.

It’s quite common for autistic people to experience difficulties coordinating movements, and this absolutely can extend to difficulties coordinating the movements required for speech. It can simply be too hard or very hard.

Another reason why more non-speech might be used by somebody is that language skills may be hard for them. A lot of autistic people learn language and learn to communicate and understand words and use words and communicate messages later or in different ways to other kids .

That’s not the case for everybody. Some autistic people are hyperverbal and learn language quite quickly and quite early and have a deep fascination in words. That is me. And that is how I ended up doing a linguistics degree and then speech therapy degree as well.

But a huge portion of my career has been spent supporting children who have delayed or different development of language skills.

So we need to keep in mind that in order to speak, you have to know what you’re going to say. You have to have some content that you’re prepared or you’re considering, or you’re ready, or you’re able to communicate. So you do need to have those language abilities, underlying the message that you’re trying to communicate.

More non-speech might be used or might be needed when the content of the language in that exact situation is complex.

There are certain situations that might be more familiar, more practiced more comfortable in which case, accessing the language and speech skills needed to produce speech in that given situation might be okay and reasonable and pretty straightforward.

But as soon as the situation becomes less expected or the language demands or perhaps even the social demands of the situation change quite a lot, the level of complexity of that entire communication attempt, just levels up. And that can mean that speech becomes inaccessible to a person in that time or at all times.

This definitely extends to when emotions are heightened. And when someone is experiencing sensory dysregulation, Those are two other reasons why It can be incredibly hard to produce speech. Even if somebody can sometimes talk or speak, this ability can fluctuate greatly from moment to moment.

I think about a time where you felt incredibly flustered and frustrated, perhaps you’re in an argument with somebody, perhaps you’ve been hard done by, by a telecommunications company. Speaking from experience. It can be incredibly hard, even for the most proficient speakers to communicate using speech in those moments where we’re feeling very heightened, very frustrated, very upset perhaps.

You might even have the experience yourself of losing your words or forgetting what you were going to say. We’re just not being able to find the words that you want to communicate your message. All of these experiences are familiar for autistic kids and might even be exacerbated. They might be experiencing this more often than neurotypical people.

And this goes hand in hand with feeling dysregulated. So when you’re feeling dysregulated on a sensory level, you might be experiencing sensory overwhelm. Perhaps it’s a really noisy cafe and you can’t hear yourself think, which is an experience that many people have, at various times.

Autistic people have a lot of difficulty filtering out one noise from another noise and being able to tune into what most people might think is the most important noise to tune into. So it may be very hard to tune into the speech of somebody in front of you and to be able to process what they’re saying. So you can even think to formulate your response, if there’s a lot of background noise.

There’s so many other ways that sensory dysregulation could be experienced. I had my own experience earlier on, I do my own nails once a week. I have a lovely collection of nail polish and glitter. And I got some new glitter lately, which absolutely delighted me. It’s very bright and colorful. However, this was the first time I went to remove that nail polish and it was an absolute nightmare to take it off my fingers. And it was really, really tricky. It was basically stuck in a way that I’ve never experienced glitter being stuck to my nails before.

The point here is I had to complete the task. I had to keep going to remove that nail polish off my nails. I wouldn’t say it’s painful, but it was a lot of sensory input in an uncomfortable way. And all together, all of that, almost scratching of my nails that I had to do was really challenging. And it actually left me feeling almost nauseous at the end of it.

Almost to the point that I felt I couldn’t even record this podcast episode. I am quite conscious of my sensory needs and my level of comfort or discomfort. And I did recognise that I needed to do something to centre myself and to give myself a lot of joyful input, something that felt really good and comfortable, so I could feel better and calmer and happier to even record this episode. So I got out my glitter putty, which I’m actually playing with while I’m recording this. And I do that a lot because my hand loves to be busy.

But it also keeps my eyes very happy. So that’s something that I’ve done very consciously. To be able to speak better.

When I was in the moment of being quite dysregulated after all that scratching at my nails. And even feels horrible. Just mentioning it. I wouldn’t have been able to talk or talk very well.

I could well have typed an email. Probably. And other forms of communication. Might’ve come to me probably a lot easier, but actually just pausing and understanding that I wasn’t in my best communicative space in that moment because of the dysregulation has made a world of difference.

All right, let’s come back to some other reasons why more non-speech might be needed by autistic kids. When a situation is new and unfamiliar, there’s no scripts to fall back on. There’s no experiences to fall back on.

There’s a whole lot of unknowns about how to proceed in that situation. That can be a really tricky communicative act. And therefore that can make it even harder to use speech whether or not somebody can do it sometimes.

And another reason is simply if a situation is less preferred. If you’re a parent, I wonder how often you’ve said to your child, how was your day at school? What did you get up to? Only to be met with no response. Or a very short response. Yeah, it was all right.

Answering the question of how your day went after a long, busy, possibly complicated confusing day at school. Can be very challenging for kids. And on top of that, it’s not necessarily a very motivating conversation topic for kids to have. They’ve already experienced their day. They’ve already lived it.

They’re probably decompressing or processing. It’s very motivating for parents, because you want to know how your child was, how the day was you want to know all about them.

That could be an example of a communication situation that is less preferred for a child. Think about their buy-in or their reason to actually be taking their part in that communication act.

There are many other times when a communication situation is less preferred or not fun or not motivating for an autistic kid. And you’re likely to find that they simply won’t use their best level of communication or their most expressive way of communicating in that moment. This goes for everyone really.

The last big reason that I’m going to share that underpins why autistic children might not speak or might speak less, is when the other people around them, aren’t familiar. They’re not feeling connected with them, or, they’re not a trusted person or a trusted communication partner for the child.

Relationship is at the heart of communication. We communicate to connect to share.

Without a strong relationship without trust. Communication is simply not going to go as well.

In many cases, we know now that language and speech might be difficult for an autistic child. So the act of sharing a message is potentially scary. It might not go well, it might not go to plan. They might’ve had many situations in the past where they tried to communicate something and it was misinterpreted. And therefore they feel worried in the future that their message isn’t going to be heard or received as expected.

There’s so many complex features that underlie why it can be harder to communicate and potentially to speak to people who are less familiar or less trusted. Take a moment to reflect on your own communication and how different it feels for you when you are sharing with a friend, in a calm space about a topic that you’re both excited and interested in. This one, you have to go into a shop to return an item of clothing. And you don’t even know if you followed all the rules for the returns and it’s pretty noisy and busy, and the person you’re speaking to doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in helping you have a particularly friendly.

How hard is that then as a communication act for you. Maybe it’s easy for you. In which case you might want to give me a lesson in how one does that a little bit easier.

Of course, we have to recognise that it’s almost always going to be a combination of these factors that impact on someone’s preference for how they communicate or even ability for how they communicate in any given moment. Humans are complicated and it’s rarely just one answer or one underpinning situation that is causing a change.

We also have to acknowledge that if we’re stepping away from the abelist belief, that speech is better. It doesn’t actually matter in a sense why somebody is not using speech. It does. It’s important to understand and acknowledge, but more to the point, we don’t need somebody to justify using non-speech ways of communicating.

It is perfectly fine and valid for someone to communicate in methods apart from speech or adding on to speech, if that feels right for them. An anti-ablest way of approaching support, a neurodiversity affirming way of approaching support for autistic children and everyone, is to acknowledge, celebrate, encourage other ways of communicating apart from speech as, just as valid, and just as important as speech.

Essentially, whatever is right for that person in that moment, that is what we need to respect and honor and support.

I hope that this has been helpful for you to do some reflecting about your own communication or the ways that autistic kids in your life communicate with others.

There’s a lot more to dig into and learn and discuss and share on this topic, and if you’re a professional working with autistic children and neurodivergent children, I hope that you will be joining me for the next two hour live and recorded Neurodiversity Affirming Practice Introductory Workshop.

The live session is on the 26th of April, so it’s in about a week. And if you can’t make the live one at is absolutely fine. I do understand busy schedules. So the recording is also available and that will be available for 12 months after.

You can find all the info on my website at www.playlearnchat.com/professionals and you’ll also find the link in the show notes.

If you’re a parent of an autistic child or a child who might be autistic, and you’re curious to know, how can you support their communication, their interactions in affirming ways. And to dig deeper into the ways that you can support your child to understand your communication, and you can support their communication across all different methods.

You’re very welcome to join my on-demand parent course. It’s six sessions. I recommend you do them over six weeks, but you could binge them if you like.

Very each about 30 minutes long. It’s called Connect and Grow and that’s accessible anytime, no matter what your time zone, no matter when you purchase it, you’ll be able to start watching, learning and supporting your child immediately.

You can find that at playlearnchat.com/connect-and-grow-course. And I’ll pop the link in the show notes because that’s a bit of a handful to think about.

So there’s heaps of resources to go deep into all of these topics. I hope that we can keep the conversation going.

And I hope that this has been a helpful episode for you.

Thank you so much for sharing this audio space and time with me, and thank you for being open to learning and unlearning and truly listening to the neurodivergent experience and perspective. If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat

that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes. Have a splendid day.

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