One of the hardest aspects of special needs parenting for me is that one of my children is non-verbal. Toby has never been able to tell me how his day has been, or where it hurts when he’s ill, or what he is thinking, and that’s a constant frustration for him and for me as his mum. When you have no voice it’s easy for other people to ignore you and to assume that your feelings and thoughts don’t matter. It’s also easy to assume that just because someone can’t talk, they don’t understand everything that’s said either.
Being non-verbal is much more than just not being about to express what you need and want. We form relationships with each other through being able to share our ideas, our thoughts, our observations and our reflections on every single aspect of life. When someone you love has never been able to take part in a conversation they miss out on so much.
However, just because Toby doesn’t talk, it doesn’t mean that he can’t communicate. He has very strong views about what he likes and doesn’t like, and a hundred different ways of showing us what he thinks. However, recognising every one of his communication methods takes lots of patience, years of practice and a determination to never give up trying. I’m so glad we kept going, because he now manages to tell us so much.
Toby’s facial expressions are relatively easy to work out – he can exude joy and happiness, or sadness and hurt very easily. He also has a great mischievous look when you know he’s about to be up to no good. Less obvious are the expressions he makes to show that he doesn’t believe a word you’re saying, that he’s bored stiff, or that he’s been hurt by someone saying negative about him in the mistaken belief he can’t understand.
Body language is what I look for next. Is he agitated, or is he holding himself in a confident and proud way? Is he angry or hurting? I can’t read it all, but he still manages to tell me a lot.
Then there’s his voice. He can’t use it to form words, but he can shout in a dozen different tones, or he can laugh and giggle, or just make happy noises as well as noises that mean “oi, I’m here, turn around and acknowledge me please”. Those sounds are often directed at strangers in shops.
Toby can also point to make choices, and he can turn his back on you to signal disapproval. Photos and pictures are great to use with him – he can pick up a photo and urgently gesture it towards you, or he can dismissively pick up a photo and drop it on the floor. Both indicate huge meaning about what he wants and doesn’t want.
If someone is annoying him, he’ll go and fetch their coat and as he gives it to them, he waves goodbye. That’s pretty clear too, and over the years he’s has given a lot of therapists, clinicians and social workers that sort of treatment. But then again, he also gives the very best hugs in the world to the people he really values.
Toby can’t talk, but he can think, and he can understand, he can feel, and he has strong opinions about things too. When someone is non-verbal it’s up to the rest of us to find ways to listen and learn what they are saying silently, but as importantly as anyone else.

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