“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” – Cris Jami
All of the children in my class are autistic and most of them are non-verbal. Ranging from 9 to 11 years old, each child is unique and has their own personality traits. According to research, around a third of people with autism use very little or no verbal language. The term “non-verbal” does not mean a child is mute, because some are able to make a few select sounds or have a small bank of words they can say or mimic. Depending on the child, with support, non-verbal kids can also learn how to converse effectively through non-spoken communication tools.
Imagine as an adult, going to another country and not being able to fluently speak the local lingo, so you try to get by with the few mispronounced words you learnt from a tourist guide book and heavily rely on unfamiliar customs, body language and visual cues. This can be a scary experience for any grown up. Now put yourself in the position of a child at home in their very own country, unable to fluently communicate verbally with their parents or siblings. On top of that, being autistic many children find it difficult to pick up on body language, voice intonation and visual cues to help them read social situations. With all of this to process, how do you think any child may feel if put in this situation?
At school I often witness melt downs and see frustrated children if they feel they are not being understood or too shy to take part in an activity alongside their highly verbal peers. Working with non-verbal children requires a lot of patience, flexibility, resilience and compassion. Every day I am challenged, but inspired by the children I work with.
“By holding the highest vision for your child when they cannot see it for themselves, you are lifting them up, elevating them and helping them to soar.” – Megan Koufos
Recently, I organised an assembly for my class to perform in front of the school community. Assemblies can be quite a huge feat for teachers to organise, particularly when creating meaningful content for an audience to watch; helping the kids overcome any performance nerves; reassuring anxious parents; and ensuring everyone understands the expectations set for them. For any child, regardless of whether they are autistic or not, performing in front of a room full of people can be an incredibly overwhelming concept to process. This is why it’s important for teachers to have a calm, organised and open minded approach with the kids when planning assemblies, which is not always easy to gage.
With the majority of the children in my class being non-verbal, I was definitely out of my comfort zone with our assembly and felt daunted by the prospect. I had to buckle down and change my perspective quick smart because I wanted every child to feel included and be given their moment to shine (if they wanted to). But most importantly, my aim was for everyone to have a fun and fulfilling experience. My team and I worked with the children to create colourful sensory props related to our topic on Journeys; made a music video of the kids using different modes of transport; devised a choreographed dance routine to the ‘Wheels on the Bus Go Round & Round’; and rehearsed in the school hall a few times to ensure the children felt ready within themselves.
With lots of encouragement, tweaking and motivating, our multi-faceted assembly went off with a bang and was well received by parents, the school community and the proud performers themselves. The kids may not have been able to articulate their words during our assembly, but their presence, involvement and joy was loud, clear and certainly felt throughout. I was amazed to see how much more confident and proud the children gradually became through this collaborative journey. It also brought the children and adults closer as a class team.
“We must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy
My recent class assembly got me thinking how underestimated non-verbal autistic children often are and how vital it is for us not to judge a book by its cover. A child who is non-verbal may indeed be limited with their verbal communication, but research indicates that many have moderate to high cognitive abilities, with some children developing their speech later in life. That said, a child with low cognition and limited speech, still has an abundance of special qualities. A non-verbal child could be an amazing writer, mathematician, painter, runner or musician and this should be recognised. What’s more important is to focus on what a child can do, build their confidence in this area, then gently support any perceived “weaknesses” to help them realise their true potential.
“My autism makes things shine. Sometimes I think it is amazing but sometimes it is sad when I want to talk the same and I fail. Playing Beethoven on the piano makes me very happy.” – Mikey Allcock, was non-verbal until he was 10 years old (now 16 years old)
According to Autism Speaks the seven key ways to promote language development in non-verbal autism are to: Simplify your language when communicating to your child; Encourage play and social interaction; Imitate and mirror your child; Focus on and model non-verbal communication; Follow you child’s interests and engage in these activities; Leave space for your child to respond to you; and Use assistive devices and visual supports including PECs, digital pads and apps.
In my day to day SEN practice, I personally use Makaton Signing, PECS, Attention Autism, Sensory Integration, Digital technology and multi-sensory teaching to help the kids in my class improve their verbal and non-verbal communication. Over the years I have also been lucky enough to work alongside some amazing behavioural experts, speech and language therapists, music therapists and arts therapists and have seen children notably improve their communication through tailored intervention strategies.
“Courage is never to let your actions be influenced by your fears.” – Arthur Koestler
Every child, regardless of their speech, cognitive ability or diagnosis, is unique and deserves to have their ‘voice’ heard and accepted. I believe it’s vital for children to feel they have a safe space for their thoughts, feelings and intended actions to be communicated.
As we try to make sense of the ever-changing world around us, I hope this post inspires you to show compassion, spread the word and communicate for the greater good of all.
Miss H ♥