What’s Wrong with Describing My Child or Client as “Nonverbal”?

By Mary Barbera PhD, RN, BCBA-D

In 1998, when my son, Lucas starting showing signs of autism at 21 months of age, my husband, Charles (who is a physician) first mentioned the possibility of autism. I was horrified at the thought of the autism diagnosis and in denial about Lucas’ delays telling my husband, I never, never wanted to hear the word autism again.

Lucas was eventually diagnosed with autism and I went on to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Years later I wrote a best-selling book, The Verbal Behavior Approach, earned a PhD and created an online course for professionals and “gung-ho” parents.

More than 15 years since telling my husband I never wanted to hear the word autism again, it is somewhat ironic that now I see, say, type, and read the word autism hundreds if not thousands of times per day.

Because I’m so entrenched in the autism field as both a parent and professional the one autism term I come across every day is “nonverbal” and every time I hear that word, I cringe. Many parents and professionals describe their children or clients as “nonverbal” and you might be wondering why I don’t prefer to use that term.

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, etc. 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 a good augmentative communication system in place to help them communicate exhibit major problem behaviors that complicate programming.

Since we all are verbal, most ABA/VB  practitioners, including me, prefer to use the term “non-vocal” or “minimally vocal” to describe a child who is 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 more vocal.  A careful assessment should be your first step.

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