If Speech is Dangerous, Not Speaking Is Too

This post is mainly inspired by Mel from “Cussin’ and Discussing”, who is one of my favourite bloggers. Their well-written piece about the pain of emergency speech when your body isn’t built for it is incredible.

I can’t claim to feel the exact same way about talking as Mel does, but their words are excellent in a topic I don’t think is “talked” about enough.

So here’s my big idea:

  • “Verbal” people with autism would be described better as verb-able

And here’s my second big idea:

  • “Non-verbal” people with autism would be described better as verbl-less as in, less verbal.

Pronounced ver-bab-bel and ver-bul-ess respectively.

Basically, at work I recently met someone “non verbal” and the difference almost blew me away.

Whilst I struggled with angst about work, they were on a day trip with a carer on the other side of the desk.

The expectations on autistic people range from either unrealistically high if you’re able to speak, to patronisingly low if you can’t.

And the problems start with “non-verbal” labelling.

Non Verbal vs Verbl-Less:

Non-verbal implies silence, or the absence of words or meaning, however very few people are entirely mute, this is a fact.

Most “non-verbal” people can say some words, even if it’s only a few of them, or they are pronounced strangely, or it’s only when very relaxed. It’s inaccurate to say this is “non verbal”.

Non-verbal silences the voice based on the (completely unrelated) ability to use words.

If it’s harder to talk, it doesn’t mean there’s less to say. On a level playing field, where communication doesn’t require speech, for example, when typing, “non verbal” or “low functioning” or “severely disabled” people have plenty to say.


Verbl-less instead encourages listening, and reflects the voice that is harder to hear, but still exists. It respects the spectrum of not using speech, without excluding anyone’s voice.

Teenagers who are “non-verbal” often get treated like children, all the way into adulthood*.  This infantilisation is in itself an unrealistic expectation. A verbl-less neurodiverse teenager being treated like a neurotypical child still isn’t one.

It may look gentle, but why should anyone be treated like someone they aren’t?

Verbal vs Verb-able

On the other side of the coin, “Verbal” downplays the cognitive complexity of carrying a conversation for an autistic person who can do it, but at a cost.

It puts you in a role of a neurotypical person, for whom talking is natural, when for you it is not, even though it is possible.

Verb-able describes better how talking feels, for me.

It’s clunkier, difficult to say. It includes “able”, because it’s an ability, not a strength. It doesn’t always come naturally or easily.

I’m always embarrassed of myself if I stop being “on”, stop consciously making an effort to use words when I should.  It’s hard to switch off. It’s “easier” to be a broken, tired, anxious talky-person, than it is to just be me, because this world prefers me talking and “appropriate”.  It doesn’t have time for my autistic self at F U L L   P O W E R, silently staring, fidgeting and “vibing” with the planet. It absolutely does not want me twinkling my fingers at it.overthinking_by_namtia-d930yfl

Because I can communicate how neurotypicals do, I’m generally expected to, even though it is harder for me than them. Saying I’m “verbal” doesn’t really cover the difficulty, or the stigma attached to going silent.

Big Ideas, Small Reality

I know these words aren’t going to take off.

I’m probably more likely that the average person to get attached to an idea without realising how other people see it.

Perhaps other people feel that verbal autistic does mean “finds it hard to talk but is able”. Perhaps many people understand non-verbal means “limited speech, not total silence”.

We’re all skewed by where we’re coming from, and more so when you’re coming from an outside perspective.

If you’re autistic, I’d especially welcome your comments on this.

Is the “less” part of verbl-less stigmatising? Does the fact that both these words use hyphens infuriate you? Are Verbal vs Non Verbal useful labels, or do you agree that they fail to reflect the reality and complexity of vocalising and expectations?

talkative women and silence
Caption: The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence.

Thanks for reading. This blog is a labour of love and a continuing work in progress. I post every week, about social justice, mental health, and politics beyond tribalism, so consider signing up to my email feed below if you enjoyed.

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*Note: A severe lack of age-appropriate learning/stimming materials at affordable prices also compounds this problem.



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