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Understanding non-verbal (pre-verbal) autism:

Non-verbal autism is when an individual experiences significant difficulty with expressive verbal communication. While many people with autism spectrum disorder may struggle with social interaction and communication, those with non-verbal autism have limited verbal speaking skill or are delayed in acquiring speech.

Pre-verbal autism:

We often describe this type of autism as non-verbal, however, this phrase carries negative connotations, so we prefer to describe it as pre-verbal. There are many stories of individuals with pre-verbal autism, beginning to speak at later stages in life and non-verbal can feel like a definite statement.  As “Non-verbal” suggests that they will never verbally communicate, this can lead to low expectations, disappointment and frustrations for families and the individual.

What are the common challenges those who are pre-verbal face?

Non-verbal autism can present a range of challenges for those individuals. Some common challenges include difficulties with social interaction and communication, limited or repetitive behaviours or interests, and sensory sensitivities. These challenges can make it difficult for individuals with non-verbal autism to connect with others, express their needs, and feelings, as well as participating in social situations.

A significant stigma faced by people with non-verbal autism is the assumption that they are not intelligent or capable. This stereotype can lead to low expectations from teachers, peers, and even family members, limiting opportunities for learning and growth. Additionally, the inability to communicate verbally can lead to frustration and isolation, which can aggravate feelings of loneliness and social exclusion.

It is really important to separate expressive communication (verbalising) from receptive communication ( understanding) as both of them develop differently and can be experienced at different levels for all individuals.

Another common stigma associated with non-verbal autism is the belief that the individual is not interested in social interaction or that they lack emotions. However, individuals with non-verbal autism often have a strong desire to connect with others but instead struggle to do so because of their communication barriers.  It is important to recognise that people with non-verbal autism have emotions and feelings, just like anyone else, and they can benefit greatly from social interaction and connection.

Encouraging a range of communication approaches with pre-verbal individuals is crucial.   Some may find visuals, signs or technology useful approaches to communicating with the word and a pre-verbal individual should have access to all of these so they can make the best possible communication choices for them.

How can we overcome the stigmas those with pre-verbal autism face?

  • Education: One of the most effective ways to overcome stigmas associated with pre-verbal autism is to educate others. This can involve sharing information about the challenges that pre-verbal individuals may face and highlighting their strengths and abilities.


  • Communication aids: There are many tools and technologies available to help pre-verbal individuals communicate more effectively. These can include communication boards, sign language, and speech-generating devices. By providing access to these aids, we can help pre-verbal individuals communicate more effectively and break down the barriers that prevent them from fully participating in society.


  • Inclusive environments: It’s important to create environments that are inclusive of individuals with pre-verbal autism. This can involve providing accommodations such as visual aids, quiet spaces, and sensory-friendly environments. By making these changes, we can help pre-verbal individuals feel more comfortable and supported in their daily lives.


  • Advocacy: Advocating for the rights of pre-verbal individuals is also an important way to overcome stigmas. This can involve speaking out against discrimination, working to change policies that limit the rights of pre-verbal individuals, and supporting organisations that work to promote the rights of individuals with disabilities.

The BBC have just released an amazing programme “Inside Autistic Minds”, which brilliantly showcases various experiences of autism and a realistic perspective of living with autism. Click here to watch now!

It is important to recognise that non-verbal autism is complex and can present unique challenges for individuals and their families. But we must challenge stereotypes in hope of increasing awareness about the condition. Doing so will allow us to create a more inclusive and supportive system to ensure pre-verbal students have the correct support available. Additionally providing the correct knowledge about the condition ensures students without autism have a factual understanding and doesn’t single out those with non-verbal autism.

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