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Lack of expressive verbal language – ‘autistic muteness’:

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Why can’t my child speak?

It was estimated that about one third (Bryson 1996) to one half (Lord & Paul 1997) of autistic people never develop any functional speech: they are functionally mute. More recent research estimates of the proportion of children with ASD who have been classified as minimally verbal vary from 25% to 35%.

What is it like not being able to talk?

People who have never experienced this will go through life never knowing how soul crushing the condition of wordlessness is. If I tried to describe what it’s like to be non-verbal in the World of the Verbal in a single word, I’d choose this one: agony. And yet, this is also true: if we know there is even a single person who understands what it’s like for us, that’s solace enough to give us hope. (Naoki Higashida)

Can’t you or won’t you?

I first started asking myself this and other related questions when my son turned two years old, but he still didn't speak. It was unexpected because all precursors of language were there – vocalisations and babbling – the favourite being ‘ah-ah-ah’, ‘ba-ba-ba’ and ‘va-va’. He did a lot of ‘talking’ to… himself – ba-ba-ing and ah-ah-ing, and giggling, while lying in his cot surrounded with his toys. At the time, I wasn’t particularly worried because (apart from his preference for solitude), it seemed he was developing ‘according to the books’.

After the first 6-8 months, I noticed that my baby produced significantly fewer vocalizations, and by the time he was one year old, he rarely ‘talked’ even to himself. Time went by, at the age of one year and a half, my son remained ‘laconic’ – occasional ‘va-va’ to acknowledge my communication attempts: ‘Alex, do you want an apple’ – ‘Va-va’; ‘Alex, let’s go to the park!’ – ‘Va-va’, and so on. Intuitively, I guessed correctly (in most cases), when ‘va-va’ meant ‘yes’ and when it was ‘no!’

Another year passed. My 3-year-old child didn’t say a single word. Screaming – yes, meltdowns – yes, but no speech (except very rare cases of ‘va-va’-utterances).

His comprehension of language at the time seemed very poor as he didn’t follow instructions and didn’t turned his head when being called. It was impossible to attract his attention by speaking to him, and sometimes he seemed deaf as he showed no reaction at all even if you shouted at his ear. However, he could hear the sounds he was interested in, such as unwrapping the sweeties – he would react immediately. [His hearing was hypersensitive and painful, so when it was too much for him, he just switched it off]

The causes of ‘autistic muteness’

There is significant heterogeneity in non-verbal/minimally verbal autistic children (Koegel et al. 2020). The causes of ‘autistic muteness’ may be different for each person and are often multifaceted. They may include sensory processing problems, motor difficulties, anxiety or stress.

They do not understand speech (Sensory processing problems – especially auditory processing difficulties)

Some autistic children with both severe expressive and receptive language impairments process sounds differently (Schwartz et al. 2020). For these children, words have no meanings, they are just sounds of the everyday environment, not meaningful messages used for communication. Much later, such children can work out that noises coming out of the people’s mouths are addressed to them (instructions, questions, etc.) and need some sort of response from them. However, because of auditory distortions, learning the meaning of different words for these children is very difficult at best and impossible at worst. How can you learn the meaning of any word, if individual words are blurring into the fluctuations, and sometimes being overtaken by following or preceding sounds? (Lucy Blackman)

They can understand speech but cannot talk (Motor problems)

They know what they want to say but either can’t say anything (like in a stutter) or sometimes they can say just one short word (or a syllable) which is irrelevant to the situation and is not what they actually want to say – this is just the only ‘word’ (‘sound frame’) they can utter. Isn’t it frustrating to have words in your head you want to say but when you try to say them, they suddenly disappear and your mouth produces just vocalisations or the words you do NOT want to say?

Poor motor skills predict long-term language impairments for children with autism. Fine motor skills may be a strong predictor for identifying whether children with autism are at risk for long-term language disabilities. Those who have extremely delayed motor skills continued to have language disabilities in later childhood or young adulthood.

Stress and anxiety can aggravate the situation. Even overexcitement may cause difficulties. Even very articulate high functioning autistic people can lose (temporarily) their ability to talk if they find themselves in the overwhelming environments.

On the other hand, under extreme, often negative, circumstances some nonverbal autistic individuals (children and adults) with sensory and motor problems are able to speak. Some non-verbal autistic individuals can produce intelligible utterances, at least once, and then become mute again for many years or even for life.

Mother was packing bags – her husband, his brother and her autistic non-verbal son (Alex, three years of age) were going to the country to visit their relatives. The boy was in bed but not asleep. He seemed oblivious to all the ‘fuss’ in the room, flicking his favourite toy in front of his eyes. In the middle of Mother’s ‘I’ve put Alex’s pyjamas in…’ the three adults heard a very clearly articulated question from the NON-verbal boy: ’Will Mummy go with us?’ Surely they could not been hallucinating! Not three of them! ‘Alex, sweetheart, what did you say? Please, honey, say it again!’ Alex was lying in bed, flicking his toy in front of his eyes, seemingly oblivious to the fuss around him. Was he talking or wasn’t he?

Alex did not say another word for four more years, until he was seven… {Interestingly, when he started talking, his pronunciation was very poor and most utterances were echolalic – yet again making me doubt that his well-articulated and grammatically correct question was real).

We take the ability to speak for granted and sometimes erroneously assume that a child who is mute either is being deliberately rude or indifferent to others. Autistic children do not plan whether to talk or not to talk. They do not speak because they either are unable to speak or do not understand ‘what it is all about’ and not because they do not want to communicate with us. In many cases, they are too overwhelmed to speak. It is our task to decrease the stress by making the environment more ‘communication-friendly’ and adjusting our interactive style to theirs.

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