Non-verbality is problematic not only for the obvious impediment to social interaction, but also because it impedes necessary communication. Statistics state that persons on the autism spectrum and other learning disabilities can die up to 20 years prematurely due to a lack of care.
It’s important to note that such a lack of care is not malicious; practitioners and family members simply do not always know when their loved one is in distress. What might appear to be routine stimming (i.e. flapping of the hands) may actually be an attempt to signal an ailment or discomfort for which they cannot find the words to express.
The problem is multi-fold. First, persons with ASD sometimes lack the self-awareness to identify that they are ill or in pain. Second, they may not have the appropriate means to alert others to their distress. Third, certain individuals who are hyposensitive simply may not feel what would be extremely painful for typically developing people. Of course, there are many other reasons behind this debacle, and these are just a few.
To combat such issues, medical health care professionals have developed systems such as visual pain scales, EasyHealth demonstrations, and Books Beyond Words. The latter are particularly useful because they give visual representations of how a person might feel, describe, and treat their ailments.
For those who are nonverbal, the struggle is all the more difficult because they have few means, if any, to properly alert caregivers to their ailments. To combat this, the National Autistic Society has created “passports” for such autistics that they carry on them, detailing their medical history and needs. By compiling this information in a mobile manner, professionals understand why the individual may be acting unusual and possibly identify what the source of their problem is based on past occurrences.
Just because a person can’t say what they’re feeling doesn’t mean that they don’t feel it. Not only does this apply to the autistic community, but to the global community at large. In order to benefit the masses, it’s vital to remember that we don’t all say what’s wrong. Sometimes listening with our eyes, ears, and hearts is the best bridge toward understanding.
By Sara Power, Fordham University