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Changelog: Presume Competence. “Nonspeaking” or “Nonverbal”?

We updated “Presume competence. Never assume that the ability to speak equals intelligence.” with a selection from “AAC and autism resources | This Is Not About Me”.

Presuming competence is essential to inclusive education. When we presume competence, we assume that everyone can think and learn. This is often called, the “least dangerous assumption” tied to the most basic pillar of medicine to first do no harm. We cannot know what someone can learn until we have taught them with the same commitment we use to teach everyone else.

AAC and autism resources | This Is Not About Me

BTW, we recommend the “This Is Not About Me” website and film. We wrote about it previously in “This Is Not About Me: The Journey from Patient to Agent and the Fight for Educational Inclusion”.

We updated our “Nonspeaking” glossary page with a selection from “A Toolkit for Educators of Students Who Cannot Rely on Speech to be Understood”.

“Nonspeaking” or “Nonverbal”?

People who do not speak have historically been labeled “nonverbal.” Because the word “verbal” means “relating to words,” not “speech,” that term isn’t usually an accurate way to describe someone who cannot speak.

Using the term “nonverbal” can also be harmful because it suggests that the person has no language and thus can’t benefit from language-based AAC, instead of simply conveying that they cannot speak.

Because speech is a motor function and language is a cognitive function, there is no reason to assume that a hearing person who cannot speak has a language disability. The way a person with a motor control disability acts or moves their body after hearing language cannot tell you how much language they actually understand.

No one is too disabled to benefit from AAC. People who cannot speak almost always can understand language. Given the right supports, they can almost always learn to express themselves using some form of language-based AAC.

Many autistic people who do not speak prefer the term “nonspeaking.” You could also describe the person as someone who needs or uses AAC, someone who cannot rely on speech to be understood, or someone with little to no understandable speech.

As with identity-first or person-first terminology or pronouns, it’s best to ask the person themselves what terms they prefer.

A Toolkit for Educators of Students Who Cannot Rely on Speech to be Understood



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