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Please Stop Saying My Nonverbal Child Is 'Lazy' for Not Using Words

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Today’s post comes from your friendly local speech language pathologist.

Here is the phrase that, when it hits my eardrums, gets my blood boiling:

“He doesn’t have to talk because you talk for him.”

Or it might sound something like this:

“He’s just lazy.”

“He talks when he wants to.”

“You get him everything he wants, so he doesn’t have to talk.”

Ahhh! Just typing those out made my blood pressure skyrocket and my pulse elevate a good ten beats per minute.

I hear this quite frequently about my nonverbal son who has autism, but really, I also hear it professionally about other children, too.

Friends, here’s the thing though: there is a big difference between “won’t” and “can’t.”

“Won’t” is a choice. “Won’t” means: “I can physically and cognitively do this, but I am making the willful decision not to do it.”

“Can’t,” according to Merriam-Webster, means “unable to do.”

Children who aren’t talking, for whatever reason, can’t talk. Imagine yourself in my son’s shoes:

You want a drink. You take Mommy to the kitchen and show her that you want something in the fridge. You open the door and she says, “What do you want?” You point to the juice. She says, “Juice. Tell me juice.” She asks you to repeat her several times. You begin to squeal and point. You just want a drink of juice! You start to get frustrated because 1) you have already shown her what you want, and 2) the word just isn’t coming out!

Now, in that situation, wouldn’t you just say the word “juice” if you could? If someone is withholding the thing you want, and all you have to do to get it, is name it, you would absolutely do that!

If a child isn’t talking, I’m willing to bet it’s a “can’t” issue versus a “won’t” issue. That is why I get so worked up when someone tells me that he “doesn’t have to talk, so he doesn’t.” He gets frustrated when he wants something and I don’t know what he wants. There are times I am sure he would love to tell me “I am done with this, let’s go!” But he can’t.

I also have to chuckle when someone says, “well you do everything for him, so he doesn’t have to talk.” You do realize that you’re talking an SLP, right? I am the mom who has put everything he wants (or might want) out of reach or inside a locked cabinet just so he has to come get me and show me what he wants. Then, once he shows me, I model the heck out of that word in hopes that he will imitate me. I am the queen of sabotaging his environment to create opportunities for language. Yes, I usually anticipate his needs, but I still make him work for it! He might be my first child with disabilities, but this ain’t my first rodeo!

I know he gets frustrated when he can’t communicate what he wants or needs. I have to read his cues and know when it is time to stop pushing for verbal words. He now uses a communication device, and this has given him a voice to tell us what he wants and needs.  Sometimes, verbal words do come out — and we get so excited! We, as his family, are so proud of him when he says a word, but do you know what the best part is? He is so proud of himself!

Whether he uses his voice or a communication device, I am so proud of my son. He works so hard to communicate with us. Communication is powerful, and every child has something to say, some just might need a little help getting it out!

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