Verbal Crutch

“You will be working with a kid suffering with severe autism,” my supervisor said. “He’s nonverbal.” He pulled up a computer screen-like gadget. “He will communicate with you using this DynaVox. Whenever he wants something, he will arrange the words and the automated voice will read it in a sentence. Now here is where his schedule is.”

This was my first time working with a nonverbal kid. He was almost as tall as I was and I knew I couldn’t rely on physical force to keep him engaged. My supervisor told me and the previous therapist that the boy was a runner—he had a tendency of darting out of the house into the street. I tucked that bit of info in the back of my mind.

The next day I came back to start therapy. Building rapport is key, so we spent quite a bit of time playing with his favorite toys. After a while I sat down to start getting his therapy programs ready. “Hmm. I can’t remember where he said the schedule was on this thing,” I said in a low voice, talking to myself and not expecting the boy to respond to me. As I was speaking, the boy stood up, snatched the DynaVox from my hand and opened up his schedule. I stared at him for a minute and realized that he understood more than what they gave him credit for—or at least what I had.

The next few days were eye-opening. I started to learn the deeper language of communication. One that doesn’t require words. This language requires you to be keenly aware of staying in the present and knowing what the other person is experiencing.

One day I was sitting down writing down data from his therapy. I heard the door slam and looked around. He was not in the room anymore. I darted out the door into the street, thinking of the worst possible scenario. I found him on the steps of the neighbors house. He was feeling the texture of the concrete with his hands and cheeks.

“Look at me” I said in a stern voice, trying to hide the panic from my voice. “I know they let you get away with stuff because they think you don’t understand them. But you do. So please—don’t ever do this again”. We both stared at each other for a moment. He knew his cover was blown. He stood up, and walked back to the house.

Later, I was told that they normally had to physically drag him back into the house. Not that day. That day we both stood at the same level. No one was talking down to the other. There was no fighting for control. It was just a friend asking another friend for a favor. From then on I stopped talking to him like a kid with severe autism, and started to communicate like a fellow human.

It’s easy to think of skill in verbal language as a marker of intelligence—but maybe verbal language is only the beginning. Maybe it’s a first step at best—to usher you into a deeper intimacy with another that words cannot express. Maybe that’s why older couples talk less, intuit more. Because their real words don’t need voice, gadgets, diagnoses.