Conversation without words

man in white dress shirt and maroon necktie holding hands with girl in white dress

If you know anyone with autism, you know that conversation can be difficult. Even if a person is totally verbal, their understanding of something may be different and what people say may not always make sense to that person.

Lots of people on the spectrum have difficulty with conversation. The conversation I am referring to is conversation with words.

When we think about communicating with someone, we always think about talking to them. But what if that person can’t talk or what if that person has limited skills in this area? How do we know what they are thinking or feeling? How do we read their cues or develop an intimate relationship with them?

As a parent with a child on the spectrum, it can be frustrating at times. Like me, you may focus all your attention into what your child is “not saying” rather than looking at what they are saying. What they are saying doesn’t always need to come in the form of words.

For example, if my son is happy, I know that he is happy. He is smiling, laughing, engaging in activities, it’s evident. When my son is sad or upset, he is withdrawn, frustrated, which could be seen in many different ways. He may choose to be alone. He may stomp his foot or yell. When my son is overwhelmed he may do more stimming-type behaviour like talking to himself, covering his ears or withdrawing himself from everyone and everything.

I don’t have to have a conversation with him to understand what he is feeling or what he is doing, I know just from how he acts. I think most of us would be able to distinguish these types of things.

When I speak to my daughter and she doesn’t look at me or slams her door, again, I know she is upset overwhelmed, or angry. She doesn’t have to tell me in words that this is the way that she feels.

We always seem to associate conversation into discussions or words and sometimes we need to think that we are having conversations, especially with someone on the spectrum, but there are not always long drawn out back-and-forth discussions. We need to re-evaluate what we think a conversation should look like and realize that we are having conversations all day long with people and some of these are not verbal.

Our body language can sometimes be communication enough with how we feel. If we stand with our arms crossed over our body, we already look mad and distracted. If we have a happy smile on our face, we appear more open and willing to connect with someone else.

Do you want to talk to someone who looks mad?

It’s the same for our son. He knows when I am frustrated with him because he can see it first in my facial expression and secondly he can hear it in my voice.

I know with him we can have a good time with some conversation between us but we can also have a good time with no conversation at all.

This is not to say that I am not encouraging and want to develop these skills in him more, it’s just to say that it’s not everything all of the time. Being able to read his cues is part of a conversation and respect for him and knowing when to push him further and enhance his verbal speaking ability is part of another conversation, a different conversation, a conversation that more people understand in the world.

Let’s be aware of the “unspoken” conversation in everyone, but in particular, people with autism, so that we don’t miss out on these special moments and that we don’t write them off as “not being able to” or “he doesn’t have the ability.” I encourage you never to say this or think this because we can all have meaningful conversations if we just seek out the opportunities to do so.

I am so grateful for my son and learning the different ways of conversing with him. He has enhanced my growth as a human being, by showing me “new” things each day and it has made me look at the world through a different set of eyes, a better set of eyes, a less judgey set of eyes.

Conversation is communication between people, no matter what is said or not said.

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