Should We Use Non-Verbal or Non-Vocal?

It’s been almost 2 decades since my first-born son, Lucas starting showing signs of autism at the age of 21 months and that’s when my husband, Charles (who is a Emergency Medicine physician) first mentioned the possibility of autism.

I was horrified at the thought of an autism diagnosis and in denial about Lucas’ delays telling my husband, I never, never wanted to hear the word autism again.

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Lucas was eventually diagnosed with autism and I went on to become a BCBA and a decade ago wrote my best-selling book, The Verbal Behavior Approach. I also earned a PhD and created two online courses for professionals and “gung-ho” parents which has already had several hundred participants from over 40 countries.

Since telling my husband I never wanted to hear the word autism again almost 2 decades ago, it is somewhat ironic that now I see, say, type, and read the word autism hundreds if not thousands of times each day.

Because I’m so entrenched in the autism field as both a parent and professional, the one autism term I come across almost every day is “nonverbal” and every time I hear that word, I cringe a little. So many parents and professionals describe their children or clients who are not yet speaking as “nonverbal” that the term really shouldn’t bother me, but it does.

As I describe in my book, everyone is verbal including newborn babies who cry to be fed or because they are in need of a diaper change. Yes, verbal behavior includes crying, holding out arms to be picked up, pointing to an item or picture, using sign language, and using a device to communicate.  So when parents or professionals describe children as nonverbal, it is not accurate.

All children and adults are verbal, even those who do not speak yet. And, most children with autism who don’t speak and do not have good augmentative communication systems in place such as sign language to help them communicate do exhibit major problem behaviors that complicate programming.  You see, according to Dr. Mark Sundberg, over 95% of all problem behaviors are caused by the child not being able to make requests to get their needs and wants met.

Since we all are verbal, most ABA/VB practitioners, including me, prefer to use the term “non-vocal” or “minimally vocal” to describe children who are not yet talking or only using a few words.

Even more important than the terms we select, however, is that we need to learn better ways to teach children with autism to be more verbal and to be more vocal.  I guess why I cringe a little when I hear the term non-verbal is because I feel that some people tend to “write off” these kids and don’t provide enough intervention to enable them to be a lot more verbal and possibly a lot more vocal too.  Teaching verbal behavior is the first step to helping children with autism reach their fullest potentials.

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