Facilitating Communication is Imperative
The perception that an autistic individual can either be verbal or non-verbal is overly simplistic. Jess is VERY verbal, but has demonstrated communication issues as early as her toddler years (see Autism Denied )
Many times, I have been directly asked if Jess is verbal. It is not a simple question to answer. If answered, “yes,” then the listener often assumes Jess would be capable of conversing in a normal manner. If I answer, “yes, but…” the rest of my answer often fades into the background, or, the listener would have a difficult time understanding what I am trying to describe.
For me, the best way to simply describe Jessica’s communication is to answer, “She has a communication disorder, but can speak.” The initial impression of that answer is that there is difficulty with communication. A person meeting Jessica for the first time will (hopefully) understand that the conversation will be different and maybe challenging.
There are plenty of people who come in contact with Jess that never ask me such a question. They can talk to her and not get freaked out when she says something odd or weird, or totally ignores what they just said and instead talks about whatever she wants to. Then there are other people who, when they meet her and start conversing, shift their gaze to me with a scared and panic-stricken look on their face. Of course, at that point, I speak up and facilitate the conversation in hopes of developing an understanding of the situation and communication methods.
It is imperative for an individual with a communication disorder to have someone else involved who can facilitate communication. Sounds like a simple concept, but that had not always been the case for Jess. As explained in The Awkward IEP, unfortunately, Jess was not able to come home and tell us what was happening at school, or anything about her school day. In middle school her parapro sent me daily notes about what she was working on with Jess. But while Jess had been at the residential school, I had been out of the daily loop.
For the 2005-2006 school year, Jessica’s first day of school was the day after our interim IEP meeting for placement. I am not sure what I expected at the end of that day. I was used to Jess coming home from school and wanting a snack, then doing her own thing. I was used to Jess not telling me anything unless she was really upset, and even then all I knew was that something had upset her.
However, that year, at the end of day one, something gave me pause; something unexpected, signs of that school year being a different experience. A good kind of different. There, inside Jessica’s agenda, was a detailed note from her new teacher about her entire day! Not just that, but he wanted it signed and returned, committed to trying to write in the agenda daily, and invited me to write back any comments or questions.
I took those as signs. He cared.
How did one note let me know he cared? Because of the detail of the communication. He knew it way before me. Communication was the key to success. Already, he understood, I was not going to get any detail from Jess. Already, he welcomed my communication, which indicated to me that what I had to say or ask mattered. Already, it seemed he understood how a lack of communication could contribute to anxiety and stress for all of us.
Day two ended with another detailed note, as did all of the days of the next week, and the next, etc. Communicating and communication disorders. How ironic that the teacher who, only one day before, sat silently through the IEP, would be the one that totally got it.
About that first impression… it was misleading. Instead of not caring, instead of not communicating, he was just waiting. Waiting for the next day when the ball was in his court.