Not All Autistics are Nonverbal, Nor All Nonverbals Autistic

As many people today understand that autism is not one thing, it can present itself in a variety of manners, with differing levels of severity, and presenting a variety of symptoms. This is why the affliction has, in the last decade or so, has been referred to by the all-encompassing term “Autistic Spectrum Disorders,” or ASDs, which now affects one of every 68 children in the country, and rising. Some blame the increase on environmental contaminants, others blame childhood vaccinations, while many think the increasing numbers are due simply to better medical detection and increased awareness of the disorders.

People diagnosed as “being on the Spectrum” can have relatively mild symptoms be high functioning, intelligent individuals that present unusual, often obsessive, behaviors, and/or limited social interaction, generally referred to as Aspergers Syndrome. Others can display negative reactions to physical contact or loud noises. On the most severe end of the Spectrum, children that seemed to be developing normally suddenly lose their ability to talk or communicate, and, to one degree or another, the ability to control their body movements, some so severely that they end up wheelchair-bound. These nonverbal autistic individuals become trapped in a body they can no longer control, a physical prison with, seemingly, no possible escape. Some, however, have found a path out of isolation through a variety of therapies and the use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) supports, and devices like the iPad and computer keyboards.

You don’t have to be autistic to be nonverbal

Martin Pistorius With Book

Martin Pistorius, author of the New York Times best-seller Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body.

However, not all nonverbal persons suffer from an ASD. The loss of the ability to speak or otherwise communicate can be caused by a variety of other factors, such as severe brain injury, dyslexia or other learning disabilities, or medical issues like epilepsy or stroke. One such affliction is known as Locked-in Syndrome (LIS,) a condition in which a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes. LIS can be the result of a wide variety of causes, from snakebite to overdose of medications to multiple sclerosis. For example, let’s look at the story of Martin Pistorius.

Martin grew up in South Africa, a normal, happy child until, at the age of 12, he began losing voluntary motor control and fell into a coma for three years. When he regained consciousness at 16, he was completely paralyzed and unable to speak. Eventually, his caregiver, Virna van der Walt, noticed that he could use his eyes to respond to things she said. She sent him to the University of Pretoria for testing, where they confirmed he was conscious and aware of his surroundings. Upon learning of these findings, his parents got him a speech computer, and he began slowly regaining some upper body functions and the ability to communicate with the outside world.

Today, while still unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair, Martin is married, works as a freelance web designer/developer, and is the author of the 2011 New York Times best-selling book Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body., in which he describes living with locked-in syndrome.

Recently, as he sat in his wheelchair, alone on stage, Martin presented a TEDx talk about his experiences, using his MacBook and voice synthesizer technology to address the crowd. His story is one marked by abuse, neglect, love and despair. An expert on what people do when they think no one is looking, Martin has become well versed on human nature and self-determination.

Watch the Video: Martin Pistorius | My Way Back to Words | TEDxKC

About TED

TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world. TEDx was created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading.” It supports independent organizers who want to create a TED-like event in their own community. Visit the TED website for more information.