Understanding My Son on the Autism Spectrum When He Doesn't Use Words to Communicate


My son and his classmates made their way from the doors of the school to the playground where parents gather to pick them up. My son let out a little groan and whine, which is almost always a prelude to tears.

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

My questions were met with silence.

My son then got distracted by the busyness surrounding him. He watched eagerly as kids went up and down on the see-saw, and he pulled my arm as he rushed to see his classmates board their school bus. Although it seemed like he had forgotten whatever it was that upset him as he exited the school doors, I knew better than to assume it was nothing.

For me, having a child on the autism spectrum who is partially verbal means no moment of sadness, anger or even joy can be dismissed without further investigation. While parents of children with strong verbal skills can often rely on their child to give them a play-by-play account of their day at school, I’ve learned to rely heavily on my son’s body language, unique methods of communication and the comparison of his past and present behaviors to gain insight about what he’s experiencing when he’s away from home.

“Does school make you happy or sad?” I asked while pointing to little pictures depicting various emotions given to me by my son’s behavioral therapist.

“Happy. Sad.” He answered. I thought he seemed a little confused.

While gently and playfully asking him simple questions about the things he did at school that day, and who he did them with, he became visibly upset at the mention of a classmate’s name. It turned out my son was pushed while playing and his feelings were hurt, but he still considered the kid who pushed him to be his friend.

In the days that followed, I monitored my son closely for changes in behavior and moments of sadness or anger that might indicate there were problems at school, but thankfully there were none. If his sadness had persisted, I would have taken the next step and arranged a meeting with his classroom teachers to gain a full picture of what was making him unhappy at school.

Over time, I’ve learned the more I focus on learning and understanding my son’s moods and behaviors, the more I understand what he’s saying even when he doesn’t use words. When sadness begins to cloud his typically sunny disposition, I know what something is wrong no matter who may try to persuade me otherwise. I’ve taken the time to learn his unique ways of communicating and I’ve gotten to know what gets him down and what makes him happy. When I slow down and take the time to listen to my son’s nonverbal communication, I realize his messages are loud and clear.

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Thinkstock photo by: digitalskillet

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