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Autistic Lens

Supporting a Non-Verbal Autistic Loved One

March 9th, 2023

Aly Laube

For Everyone

Non-verbal communication can be difficult to understand, both for those observing and for those experiencing it. However, it can be helpful in explaining to non-autistic loved ones what it feels like.

Not all autistic individuals are non-verbal. Some are completely non-speaking, while others speak very little. I’m usually speaking, but sometimes experience periods of non-verbalism. 

When a person is non-verbal, they do not primarily use spoken words to communicate. Instead, they might use gestures, body movements, facial expressions, symbols, written or typed language, or sign language.

 

Someone using sign language to communicate. (Pexel)
Someone using sign language to communicate. (Pexel)

 

My personal experience of non-verbalism is usually preceded by a burnout or, in extreme cases, a meltdown. This cycle starts with overstimulation, social exhaustion, disorientation, and ends in a state of “empty-headedness” or “shutting down.” This means that all the words seem to dissolve from my mind and I am unable to process anything further. However, my body continues to absorb the stimulus around me, making it an uncomfortable experience. 

During this state, I have thoughts and feelings but am distant and dissociated. If the burnout is mild, I may be able to think of sentences, but speaking feels awkward and difficult. Speaking can also be physically and cognitively challenging in loud rooms.

 

A woman with her head in her hands looking stressed.
Non-verbalism can be overwhelming for autistic people. (Pexel)

 

For non-autistic individuals who want to support a non-verbal autistic person, it’s important to let them lead the way. Ask them how they feel and how they communicate in these moments, and respect their boundaries. When the person is non-verbal, they just need quiet and space to wait for it to pass. When it’s over, it’s often wise to wait for them to initiate conversation again. Avoid making them feel guilty or rushed as this can deepen their sense of isolation. 

Navigating challenges when spending time with a non-verbal autistic person can also include being flexible and understanding if plans have to change. Consider asking them about their triggers and how you can help avoid them in the future. If communication is difficult, texting or yes-or-no questions can help, or you can use accessories like wristbands or visuals to indicate mood. Remember to practice kindness and empathy in these conversations. 

Bystanders should avoid pressuring or scolding autistic people for being overstimulated. By understanding each other better and communicating more smoothly, the harm caused during non-verbal periods can be reduced. 

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