‘But How do You Know What She Wants?’

How do you know what a non-verbal child with autism wants?
“But how do you know what she wants?”

It’s one of those questions that parents of non or pre-verbal children are asked over and over again.

I heard it again recently, when I called up to enquire about the possibility of Wee Girl going on an activity camp specifically for children with speech and language difficulties. A bit cheeky as the minimum age is five and she’s only four and a half, but don’t ask, don’t get. So I explained the situation, diagnosis of autism, pre-verbal, blah blah blah, and:

“So what does pre-verbal mean?” I was asked. “She doesn’t talk at all?”

“Well, no.”

“So how do you know what she wants?”

And I was stuck. Because how do I know what she wants? Usually I just sort of guess. Or anticipate her needs. Very often if she’s able to, she’ll go and get what she wants herself and we have encouraged her to be independent.

Thirsty? She gets herself a drink of water. Needs the loo? She strips off and takes herself to the toilet.

Raising a pre-verbal child presents many challenges, but so far, day to day, I have found that knowing what she wants is not one of them.

But beneath all of that, beneath the irritation of having to answer a question that is fundamentally meaningless there’s a mile-thick layer of guilt.

So asking me that question feels a bit like a slap in the face. You might as well be asking, “Why haven’t you taught her how to communicate? Why are you such a terrible parent?”

Because shouldn’t I have done more? Shouldn’t I have persisted with Makaton? Or taught her how to use visual symbols? Or done any one of a myriad of things that seemed at the time unnecessary and overwhelmingly hard?

But her needs are dealt with. Her communication skills are improving and every day she finds more ways to show us what she wants. The question ‘How do you know what she wants’ is asked out of ignorance, out of a lack of understanding of what it means to raise a child who cannot talk.

Think about it: would you ask the same of the parents of a six-month baby? A one-year old? The pre-verbal stage just persists with some children longer than others, that’s all. You find ways to figure it out. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it isn’t, but the same is true of any child at some point in their life, even after they’ve started talking.

So how am I able to know what my pre-verbal child wants? Because she bloody well tells me, that’s how.

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About allpastmidnight

Hi, I'm Alison, I am a mid-thirties mum to two children, Little Man and Wee Girl. Wee Girl is pre-verbal and has autism, while Little Man is the sort of happy chatty little guy who gets into everything and sings at the top of his lungs — until the moment he makes eye contact with a stranger and he goes silent. I am cynical, sweary, and a bit disorganised, and I blog about parenting, ASD, food and just about anything else I can think of. Feel free to follow me on any of my social media. I can also be contacted by email at allpastmidnight [at] outlook [dot] com.
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9 Responses to ‘But How do You Know What She Wants?’

  1. Eärthea says:

    My brother tried to tell me once that my infant son does not communicate with me because he doesn’t talk yet. Communicating and talking are not always the same thing, and it sounds like you and your daughter have learned, and are still learning, how to communicate.

    • Exactly. It’s not always easy, but sometimes it’s just a matter of listening and looking and connections will be made. Thanks for visiting.

    • Heart says:

      You’re absolutely right, Earthea. Communication isn’t always about talking. When a mother breastfeeds her baby while looking through his eyes, they don’t talk but they communicate. As mothers, we have this special bond to our children that enables us to know what they need. As the song (from “Tangled”) goes, “Mother knows best.”

  2. we as parents know our own children don’t we, when they are learning to say certain words we grasp what they are communicating, others don’t have the time or patience sometimes #effitfriday

  3. Up until recently my niece didn’t speak hardly at all. Turns out she was deaf in both ears and surgery helped it. But even though she didn’t speak we never had trouble nderstanding what she wanted. She could communicate very clearly without actual words. Thank you for sharing. #effitfriday

  4. Bronpon76 says:

    I really enjoyed this post and can really relate to annoying questions! My son is verbal but his speech is severely affected so lots of people ask how do I understand him! Indeed there is so much more to communication that the sound of a voice! Bron xx

    • Blimey, I think that’s worse, if anything. How rude can people be sometimes? Thanks for visiting.

      • Bronpon76 says:

        I think its called foot in mouth! People often think they need to say something but in fact they don’t! Cooper really despises it and does a pretty good eye roll at silly questions! big love to you and your daughter!

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