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Non-Verbal Languages in Autism

We assume that language is necessary verbal (i.e., comprising of words). That is why we say that children are verbal if they can talk (no matter that their verbal output is just a combination of echolalic phrases) and that they are non-verbal if they cannot produce verbal utterances.

As the original experience of the world of autistic children is sensory-based, their original internal language (as a tool of formulation and expressing thoughts) consists of sensory-perceptual (multidimensional) images. This language becomes central to their intellectual and emotional development.

Thanks to this internal (very real) language autistic children can experience thought as reality. It means that when they think about something, they relive it visually, auditorily, kinaesthetically, etc. and emotionally. It is not uncommon to see an autistic child giggling to himself. One of the reasons might be that the child is reliving some funny moment, using recorded, stored sensory images.

Autistic children, like non-autistic ones, learn through interactions with the world, but this interaction is qualitatively different. They learn their language(s) through interaction with objects and people on the sensory level. That is why their ‘words’ have nothing to do with the conventional names for things and events that we use to describe the function of these things and events. Their ‘words’ are literal, they store sensations produced by objects through interaction, and they ‘name’ them accordingly. One sense (sometimes several) becomes dominant for storing memories, developing language, and constructing thoughts.

Contrary to the stereotype, not all autistic people think in pictures. In fact, those with severe visual perceptual problems have great difficulty easily retrieving mental pictures in response to words (Williams 2003b). Instead, they may use auditory, kinaesthetic or tactile images, for example:

I learned sound pattern and the feel of words in my mouth and sound pattern in my ears. I learned the emotional tone of phrases in advertisements…but without any gestural signing to link experiences to the blah-blah NO IMAGES HAPPENED and the interpretation was lost. Unlike Temple, I do NOT think in pictures. I imagine primarily in feel, movement, kinaesthetic and via the acoustic made by the object when struck. I ‘visualise’ like a blind person. (Williams 2003)

Despite all the differences, the one thing in common for all these languages is that they are non-verbal and ‘sensory-based’. Here we may talk about visual, auditory, tactile, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory languages.

  • Visual language: Children use visual images

  • Spatial language: They represent things in mind with a multidimensional model. This way of thinking brings both disadvantages and advantages. On the one hand, it is more difficult to do things that are sequential (one-dimensional and in linear progression). On the other hand, it is easier to see certain patterns of the world and infer things from those patterns. Since they think with their subconscious they can see the decision making process that is not perceived by ‘normal’ people (Grandin 2006).

  • Tactile language: Children ‘speaking’ tactile language recognize things by touching them, feeling textures and surfaces with their hands, their bare feet or their cheeks, or putting them in their mouth. Through touch they get the information about the size, shape and form of things, but not about their function or purpose. They store the information for later reference and may find similar objects (for instance, a plastic cup and a glass cup) to be completely different ‘words’ in their vocabulary because they ‘feel’ different.

  • Kinaesthetic language: Children learn about things through the physical movements of their body. Each thing or event is identified by certain pattern of body movements. They know places and distances by the amount and pattern of the movement of the body. They may bite objects and even people if they store the information by the way it feels when bitten.

  • Auditory language: Children remember objects and events by ‘sound pictures’. If the object is ‘silent’, they may tap it, recognizing it by the sound it produces. Unsurprisingly, spoken words are often perceived as mere sounds. It is difficult to sense or feel a ball, for example, in the auditory frame ball.

  • Smell language: Objects and people are identified by smell.

  • Taste language: Children lick objects and people to feel the taste they give on the tongue.

While such children do not recognize something if given its verbal (conventional) name, they may identify it by the sound it produces while bouncing, the smell or the feel on the hand. Each child may use one or several ‘languages’ to make sense about the world. Given the perceptual problems they experience (fragmentation, hyper- or hyposensitivities, etc.), one or several systems may become inconsistent and/or meaningless, and they have to use the remaining ones to check the information.

Ann smells everything and everybody. ‘It’s rude to smell people. Don’t do that again,’ says her support worker. But how on earth will the girl recognize people and things? Isn’t it more logical to address her visual / tactile, etc. problems first, and then there won’t be any need for the child to use her olfactory channel to orient herself in her environment?

Each child has unique sensory-perceptual profile and has acquired (voluntary or involuntary) compensations and strategies to recognize things and make sense of the world. One and the same child may use different systems at different times depending on many factors that can influence the ‘perceptual quality’, such as stress, fatigue and ‘environmental sensory pollution’ (bright light, noise, etc.).

At the early stages of our work with a child, we should not dictate what mode of communication the child must use. We have to find the mode that is most natural to her, i.e., most close to her inner system, and on the basis of this communication system (shared with the child) we may introduce the conventional communicative rules and means and teach conventional concepts. In other words, we have to find out what language each child ‘speaks’ and introduce verbal language on the basis of her ‘native tongue’.


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