In our politically-correct world, certain adjectives cannot clearly identify some groups. For example, ‘African-American’ replaces ‘person of color.’ Likewise, ‘mental retardation’ stirs ire, so we use ‘intellectual or developmental delays.’ Gone too are words like ‘actress’ and ‘stewardess;’ use ‘actor’ and ‘flight attendant,’ respectively. By example, let’s discuss something we can change: public perceptions about autism. Professional clinicians once labeled ‘homosexality’ as a mental illness! If social change can re-correct misinformation at a medical opinion level, I have hopes that my simple suggestion may also bear weight.
As it stands, I fear the word “non-verbal” encapsulates too many negative stereotypes. Simply stating that a person with autism is non-verbal damages public opinions (read: neurotypical persons’ reactions). I see two things immediately incorrect by continuing to refer to persons with autism as NON-VERBAL.
Did you take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)? No, we’re not engaging in discussions about cultural dis/advantages about the SATs at this moment. Think back – maybe even waaay back – to your scores or scores of someone close to you. Usually, SAT results fell into two categories. Do you remember the Math section of the SATs? What was the other categorization? For me, I also got a VERBAL score. Nobody asked me to talk during the test. In fact, testers were forbidden to speak during the SATs. Nobody spoke with me while I took the test, aside from a procter’s instructions.
The problem with labeling someone as “non-verbal” is we completely dismisses any written proficiencies with communicable language. Famous self-advocate Helen Keller was not non-verbal, even though she was mute. She knew words and communicated their value to (sometimes limited) audiences. I cannot think of Helen Keller’s experiences and still consider her “non-verbal.”
I offer to use the word “vocal,” to replace “verbal,” and more correctly capture the social interactions with someone who does not often speak aloud.
At what percentage do we equate anything with an adjective, “non?” If I’m a non-smoker, I won’t smoke tobacco. If a book is listed as “non-fiction,” we expect it to include some historical realism and facts. If a person is non-verbal vocal, we may (incorrectly) assume that this person does not talk at all – ever. I believe this assumption undermines abilities of some people with autism who have limited, but some, vocal skills.
At what percentage does “non” capture? If my glass contains 99% fat-free milk, is this non-fat milk? Would things change differently at 98% of non-something or other? How about 95%, or 90%? Does NON really mean zero-percent 100% of the time?!? If so, what hopes do we dash by referring to persons as “non-verbal” or “non-vocal?”
From ancient Greece, we have an interesting word: PARA. This prefix means beside; next to, near, from; and against or contrary to something. I like the words, “near,” “from” and “against or contrary to” to better explain vocalization skills for some persons with autism. Does “near-vocal” more accurately, more clinically, explain some behaviors of people with autism that you know, or does using “non-verbal” paint a better picture or empowerment? If you wanted to become an evil dictator, which word would you select to undermine a group’s potential?
To this end, I suggest we use words like “para-vocal” to better explain future social communication expectations.
Use “para-vocal” instead of “non-verbal.” Otherwise, we may be unintentionally limiting our collective expectations about persons with autism. Otherwise, we may grow to expect absolutely nothing from someone we list as “NON.” Let’s presume competence. Some people with autism may never willingly choose to talk. However, we owe it to everyone, including ourselves, to think of many wonderful abilities and skills autistics have, and focus less about what a select group does not have.
If you like this idea, please share it and use it yourself. I’m not copyrighting this word. I will use it to explain our comics character, Myra. I will use “para-vocal” to explain this aspect of autism which I describe today. Do you like it? Will you use “para-vocal,” please?
Change and acceptance begins with us. To my friends at ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network), this idea falls in line with “nothing about us without us.” Can ASAN stand behind this idea of compassionate and clinically-accurate autism descriptions? Will ASAN use para-vocal instead of non-verbal in the future?
…or, we can go back to using “non-verbal” in literature. I would be wholly within clinical accuracy to refer to my African-American best friend (Sky Owens, our comics artist) as “non-white.” How far would that very factual adjective get us as a society? How would my friend respond? Look, I’m quite certain that some autistic people who don’t easily or willingly talk won’t say anything, right? Society questions the “verbal” skills of some autistics, I find more glaring verb and adjective omissions from neurotypical so-called experts.