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Nonverbal vs. Nonspeaking: Revealing Differences and Stigmas


Throughout history, spoken language has remained one of the most important modes of communication, yet people sometimes approach or adhere to speech differently. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle to communicate traditionally, experiencing difficulties with general speech, body language, social cues, and other interactions. In the past, various stigmas emerged in the spotlight, complicating the meaning of terms like “nonverbal” and “nonspeaking.” While they may appear synonymous, they have different definitions and relate to varying concepts. As such, the debate between nonverbal vs. nonspeaking requires close examination.

Aside from our comprehensive ABA therapy services, ABA Centers of Florida strives to offer reliable, accurate, and up-to-date resources regarding developments in the autism field. Clarity and understanding are the best ways to reduce stigmas and misinformation, so we take the time to address matters such as proper phrasing when discussing ASD-related concepts. Let’s explore the relationship between nonverbal vs. nonspeaking and the differences among the two terminologies.

What Do the Terms Nonverbal vs. Nonspeaking Mean?

Nonverbal and nonspeaking have been used interchangeably over the past decades when describing neurodivergent individuals with communication difficulties. More recently, the autism field has started using the term nonspeaking in most instances. Let’s define what each phrase means in a literal sense:

  • NonverbalMerriam-Webster defines nonverbal as “not involving or using words” and “lacking or appearing to lack the ability to engage in speech.” Another definition, more kid-friendly in nature, defines it as “involving little use of language.”
  • Nonspeaking – Unlike nonverbal, nonspeaking means “not speaking or able to speak” and “not involving spoken lines.”

What Challenges Do Individuals with ASD Face with Communication?

Communication challenges are prevalent in autism. These challenges often stem from differences in processing and interpreting sensory information, social cues, and language nuances. For those with limited verbal abilities, these difficulties can manifest in various ways. Expressing needs, sharing experiences, understanding abstract concepts, and engaging in reciprocal conversations may pose significant challenges.

The complexities of social interactions can also lead to feelings of isolation. These individuals might need help to initiate or sustain conversations, leading to missed opportunities for connection. The inability to communicate using spoken language can inadvertently create a barrier between them and their peers, limiting their access to social relationships and activities.

Those with autism may also experience sensory sensitivities that further complicate communication. Sensory overload or aversions to certain stimuli can make it challenging to focus on communication tasks, leading to frustration and anxiety. Others often misunderstand this sensory aspect, and the resulting behaviors might be misinterpreted or dismissed, further hindering effective communication.

What’s the Discrepancy with the Term Nonverbal?

Some argue that nonverbal is an inaccurate description for nonspeaking individuals with autism. One of the primary reasons for this notion is that these people likely understand and respond to verbalizations and, therefore, are verbal in a receptive way. Since verbal behavior is receptive and expressive, nonverbal emphasizes expressive speech, which is only part of functional communication.

Reflecting on Nonverbal vs. Nonspeaking Communication

Nonverbal communication encompasses a wide range of expressive forms beyond spoken words. These include facial expressions, gestures, body language, eye contact, and even written or visual communication aids. By relying solely on the term nonverbal, we may inadvertently overlook or undermine the diverse and creative ways individuals connect and convey their thoughts, emotions, and intentions. In contrast, nonspeaking recognizes the absence of spoken language while acknowledging the multitude of other communication methods individuals may utilize.

Embracing nonspeaking reflects a shift towards a more inclusive understanding of communication diversity within the autism community. It emphasizes the importance of valuing and supporting all forms of communication, whether they involve spoken language or not. This shift can contribute to a more inclusive and accepting society, where individuals with different communication styles feel empowered to express themselves and engage meaningfully with others.

Exploring Communication Alternatives

Understanding that verbal communication is not the only valid form of expression opens the door to exploring alternative communication methods. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems, ranging from picture exchange systems to high-tech speech-generating devices, allow nonspeaking individuals to communicate effectively. These tools bridge the gap between their inner thoughts and the external world, allowing them to participate in conversations, express preferences, and share their perspectives.

As we advance, we must advocate for increased awareness and acceptance of nonspeaking individuals’ communication styles. Educating communities about AAC systems, sign language, and other nonverbal forms of communication can break down misconceptions and reduce jeopardizing stigmas. Schools, workplaces, and public spaces can become more accessible and accommodating when we recognize the diversity of communication needs and provide the necessary resources.

How Does ABA Centers of Florida Address the Nonverbal vs. Nonspeaking Debate?

At ABA Centers of Florida, we use nonspeaking within our clinical context to accurately represent individuals with autism. However, it’s vital to acknowledge that each person’s preference for terminology may differ. Autism is a diverse spectrum, and what resonates positively for one person might not for another, even if it aligns with correct clinical terminology.

It’s essential not to feel burdened by linguistic policing, even though using clinically correct terms is never harmful; instead, we should prioritize allowing individuals with ASD to define how they wish to be perceived, described, or addressed. Respecting their autonomy in choosing a language that best reflects their identity provides an inclusive and respectful environment where they can feel at ease and welcomed.

ABA Therapy For Nonspeaking Individuals

ABA therapy, widely regarded as the gold standard for autism care, can help nonspeaking individuals develop life skills to foster independence. We communicate to families that any reliable form of communication is one of the primary goals of ABA therapy for nonspeaking children and teens.

There is no difference to us whether they use an AAC device or their voice. What matters is we meet and can advocate for their needs daily. That extends to those who can verbally speak but choose to use an AAC because it’s more comfortable. The modality of communication doesn’t matter to us; we want these individuals to use positive and safe forms of communication where they feel most comfortable and heard.

If your loved one is nonspeaking or shows symptoms of a communication challenge, our ABA therapy services can enhance their ability to converse in all situations and settings. Whether clinic-based, in-school, or at-home, ABA therapy gives children and teens with autism-related language barriers the confidence they need to communicate their thoughts and feelings safely. This way, they can reach social achievements, propel academics, and feel comfortable with their particular voice, regardless of how they express it.

Call (772) 773-1975 or visit our website to learn more about our ABA therapy services or for a free consultation.

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