Nobody Knew My Nonverbal Autistic Child Could Read, Until He Surprised Everyone

Marci LebowitzUncategorized11 Comments

Sometimes, the cover tells us very little about the story within. These can be some of the best reads.

Autistic children, especially those who struggle with speech and motor skills, can appear on the outside to be very disconnected and out of touch. Below the surface though we are discovering that many of these same children have rich inner worlds with thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are far more advanced than we may have been told.

Carla Sturak had the amazing first hand experience of discovering this for herself. Carla is the mother of a not-so-verbal autistic teenager, Dashiell, who recently developed the motor skills to type and express himself. Carla had the inclination since Dashiell was very young that a lot more was going on in his head than he could express. So one of the first questions Carla asked her son once he could type was, “How long have you known how to read?”

His response surprised everyone.

Dashiell slowly typed,

“Thank you very much for asking.”

“I’ve been reading since I was four.”

“I’m glad you finally figured it out.”

Clara’s first thought after hearing this from her son was, “Oh my gosh, I underestimated him hugely, and I’ve not given him the opportunities that he desperately was craving.” You can see Clara tell the story herself here.

Often parents of children diagnosed with autism are told that their child is cognitively delayed and will never read, have a basic understanding of math, or even exhibit human empathy. For any parent who has heard this about your child, my heart sincerely goes out to you.

I’d like to pose a different perspective.

Imagine being trapped inside of your body. You’re locked inside with your thoughts, but you’re unable to express them to anyone. What might you do? How might you feel and act?

My training as a pediatric occupational therapist (OT) educated me about the impaired motor skills of not-so-verbal autistic children. What I eventually became aware of was the profound depth of impairment of the connection between their minds and their musculoskeletal system, which controls their ability to properly breath, speak, point, type, walk, look, etc.

This awareness opened up a world of possibility!

Although there is an impaired connection between their mind and musculoskeletal system, this may have little to do with their ability to think.  These motor challenges do impair their ability to express their thoughts and feelings, as well as to perform basic functional tasks.

One way to think about their experience may be to imagine that you’re struggling against an extra thousand pounds of gravity and pressure on your body and brain. This would make expression and movement quite challenging, and you probably wouldn’t be too happy most of the time either.

One of many examples where autistic children may be being missjudged is that they do not exhibit empathy because they often can’t imitate the facial expressions of others. It may simply be that autistic children have a very difficult time coordinating their facial muscles to make an expression, but they are often capable of empathy, they just express it differently.

Are current IQ tests giving us flawed results?

Autistic children are often classified as “low IQ” and cognitively delayed, but current scientific research from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is suggesting that tests, such as the WISC-IV, may be underestimating their intelligence. The research is showing that the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM) intelligence test, which minimizes the need for task instructions, experience-specific abilities, and the need for fine motor and speech skills, is giving autistic people scores that are “significantly, and sometimes dramatically” higher than the Wechsler full-scale IQ (FSIQ) test. The RPM intelligence test can be found here and it’s free.

This research again suggests that people with not-so-verbal autism may not have as low an IQ as we have presumed. Many may have rich inner worlds with thoughts, feelings, and emotions similar to our own. I do want to clarify here though that it is my opinion that autistic people have a vast spectrum of intelligence, no different than the rest of us.

What do their own writings tell us?

When we read the writings of not-so-verbal autistic people who are able to type, like Dashiell, we find complex writings letting us know just how aware and attuned they are. They often write about how highly aware they are of the emotional life of others, and that despite their flat expressions, they actually feel a great deal.

They also write about the experience of being locked inside without the ability to express themselves. Some of the most powerful and touching writings I’ve ever read have been from people with not-so-verbal autism. I highly suggest checking out the books The Reason I Jump and Ido in Autismland: Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison.

Is my not-so-verbal child’s IQ higher than I’ve been told?

I realize that even posing this question may open us up to a complete paradigm shift in the way we view our children. The concept of our children being “locked inside” is a heavy thought to consider. My advice is to take your time when considering this possibility, and start looking for subtle signs of more intelligence in your child.

One somewhat simple test to see if your child may be able to read is to put them in front of a computer and watch them. Watch their eye contact with the computer closely and see if they are quickly scanning. At first, you may think that their eye’s are moving too fast and erratically, but my experience has been that many autistic people can read and take in information much faster than people without autism. I expand more on the topic of the intelligence of not-so-verbal autistic children in my free eBook, Autism Simplified for Parents. It’s a quick and easy read with tons of useful, actionable information that will make your parenting life easier.

I’d like to close this post with a quick video that discusses more signs that your not-so-verbal child may have a higher IQ than you’ve been told.

11 Comments on “Nobody Knew My Nonverbal Autistic Child Could Read, Until He Surprised Everyone”

  1. Dianne

    Hi.. my name is Dianne, and I have two adult sons with autism.. My 21 year old is pretty much nonverbal.. does not understand language, but has the motor ability to repeat just about any word.. so his minimal amount of language is based on what he has memorized and made as associations.. I totally believe what you are saying.. When he was 5 yrs old, I was told he had the IQ of an 18 mo old. After I removed the knife from my gut, ..I was ok with that, because I knew that was so so wrong.. the entire test was based on language… and he could not understand anything they were saying to him…. why that was ever used as a test for him.. I HAVE NO IDEA… so glad they have different tests now! He does read a little.. by memorizing… he has taught himself how to use the computer and his ipad.. he figures so many things out himself, because he cant understand words when someone is teaching…. so glad to read this article and listen to you speak, confirming what so many of us have known for a long time..Thankyou!….. Dianne

  2. Marci Lebowitz

    Hi, Dianne! I’m so glad you shared your experience and perceptions with me! I’m delighted to know that this resonates with you and many parents out there. I feel it is really important as a professional to validate the parents knowing. This can only help everyone in the families feel good and blossom. I’m so pleased that you get that there’s so much more going on inside of your child than most people are aware of. Please stay in touch. You can always contact me at Warmly From My Heart, Marci*

  3. Francesca

    Hi Marci, Thank you for posting this video. I always wonder if my non-verbal autistic son can read. I feel he is intelligent due to his natural charm and humour. He has a collection of children’s videos which he enjoys and I noticed he could match a video to its corresponding cover despite being told he would never read as he doesn’t have the capacity to decode by a thoughtless individual. He navigates YouTube with ease and loves listening to children’s shows in various languages. You also mentioned singing and in pitch. That hit a chord with me too as I have heard him sing occasionally as well as anticipate upcoming words in movies or shows. He is highly visual and his eyes are continually moving, absorbing everything around him in the world. This does not seem to be the behaviour of someone disconnected with or disinterested in his surroundings. I look forward to reading your eBook and finding ways to help my boy. Thanks again, Fran

    1. Marci Lebowitz

      You are so welcome, Francesca! I’m delighted that this information validated for you things that you’ve been sensing and know about your son. I agree, that many of the signs they show us indicate that they are much more connected and interested in their surroundings. Please keep me posted and let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you. Warmly From My Heart, Marci*

  4. Laura Bursh

    My Autistic son taught himself to read before he was 5. Unfortunately such knowledge didn’t translate into challenging IEPs or result in any useful means of communication for him to show any of his intellectual abilities. He was labeled low-functioning and non-verbal until we discovered AAC programs (FC and RPM) just 3 years ago and jump-started his new life. He left the group home and began attending college last fall. He is 28 y/o and for 25 of those years he was profoundly misunderstood by all of us.
    I think most non-verbal kids are bright but buried in their bodies by sensory issues. That they can read and teach themselves to is a measure of their desperation to reach out to us. Get your kids into any form of Alternative Augmentative Communication program that you can lay hands on. There’s a miracle awaiting.

    1. Marci Lebowitz

      Wow, Laura! Your son is in college! That’s amazing… You must be so incredibly proud. The fact that you get him and persisted for all those years is also amazing!

      I agree with you that many non-verbal kids are bright and buried in their bodies. It is amazing how many of them teach themselves to read and learn all kinds of things that no one has taught them. “There’s a miracle awaiting” is the best line of all. Please keep me posted on your son’s progress. Warmly From My Heart, Marci*

  5. Kerrie Berroyer

    it does still baffle me that the mindset of today can still be that a non verbal person has low IQ. it truly does…..

    we have become so closed in our thinking , and that is no fault of the non verbal person, more those who are not non verbal.

    Still i guess we are heading in the right direction..

    1. Marci Lebowitz

      Hi, Kerrie ~ I do believe we are heading in the right direction. There’s definitely more information out there opening all of our awareness. Warmly, Marci*

  6. Susan Edelman

    it has always struck me as odd to rely on verbally based “intelligence” tests for non-verbal individuals. The question should be: how “intelligent” are the testers, to rely on these methods for a population they clearly aren’t designed for?

  7. A.

    I had a roomate in college who was mostly non-verbal but a brilliant musician and a genuinely awesome person. At the start of the year, she put a note on my bed that explained she was autistic and non-verbal. She included some articles, and asked me to get on instant-messenger with her. I did and we began to chat and she was perfectly articulate and we had great conversations. She couldn’t read facial cues or really get verbal prompts that easily, but as long as we texted with each other, she felt grounded and comfortable. She was able to transcend her head and integrated very well into campus life, with a few adjustments for communications.

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