Colorful bubbles with words on them float above a computer keyboard


I am nonspeaking. I am not nonverbal. In fact, I am highly verbal. I don’t use my body’s voice—my vocal chords—as my primary way of communicating. I think I will learn to talk, but I use other means to communicate because at this point it’s not easy for people to understand what I’m saying. I might look “dumb,” but I’m not. I’m just nonspeaking. Speech is assessed as not important by me because it uses a lot of my body, and I don’t have it all under control yet. For now, I like to sign and to write my ideas. I am verbal. If I weren’t, I couldn’t be writing to you right now. I have a lot to say, and I use my written language to say it. I am verbal. I can message my ideas but not say them out loud. I am verbal.

Nonspeaking doesn’t mean I have no ideas or no way to communicate them. Nonspeaking doesn’t mean I can’t learn to read or write like everyone else. But I can’t if you don’t teach me how. And calling me nonverbal is like saying I can’t learn to read and write. Sometimes I look sandy, but I’m not. (Sandy is a word I use to describe when I meditate in my mind and lose my language.) Assume you are me and you sanely learn to read and write. Not nonverbal.

Non-Speaking;Non-Verbal | Listen 2 Us – Literacy, Self-Determination, and Interdependence for Nonspeakers

Nonspeakers do not like to be called non-verbal because it is interpreted as “oh, they don’t understand any language at all” and can be treated worse as a result – people make assumptions that they don’t have the capacity to understand what is going on around them. A child who does not speak / use mouth words is mistakingly regarded as non-verbal when in fact they can communicate in other ways – and they quite possible can UNDERSTAND language. So, nonverbal discounts the child’s understanding of language.

Neurodivergent-Affirming SLT | AutisticSLT

“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

Nonspeaking versus Nonverbal: In describing autistic people who do not utilize speech in communication, this study uses the term nonspeaking rather than nonverbal, because a lack of speech does not connote a lack of words, awareness, or intelligence.

Nonspeaking Does Not Equal Low Functioning. A prevalent assumption throughout the research literature is that autism is strongly linked with cognitive impairment. This is especially true for nonspeaking or minimally verbal autistic people, who “are considered the most cognitively impaired: it is commonplace to refer to such individuals as ‘low functioning’” (Dawson, Soulières, Gernsbacher, & Mottron, 2007, p. 657). British psychological researchers Anne Emerson and Jackie Dearden (2013) report continual underestimation of the cognitive abilities of nonspeaking and minimally verbal autistic children, and “the potentially dangerous assumption that ‘non-verbal’ equates to severe learning difficulties” (p. 242), such that some nonspeaking children are offered minimal education and minimal opportunities.

Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction

I prefer non-speaking as I understand all language. Non-verbal suggests I don’t understand language and doesn’t represent how I love language.

Matt Crittenden, On Using NonSpeaking, Minimally Speaking, Or Unreliably Speaking Over “Non-Verbal”: NonSpeakers Weigh In » NeuroClastic

I think that non-speaker tells a more accurate story about the person because that person simply uses a different way to communicate. Other non-speakers might think differently.

Mitchell Robins, On Using NonSpeaking, Minimally Speaking, Or Unreliably Speaking Over “Non-Verbal”: NonSpeakers Weigh In » NeuroClastic

I like to call myself nonspeaking because I can communicate by spelling words instead of speaking. nonverbal implies i do not understand words. how can i communicate with words if i am nonverbal?

Philip Reyes, On Using NonSpeaking, Minimally Speaking, Or Unreliably Speaking Over “Non-Verbal”: NonSpeakers Weigh In » NeuroClastic

Non-verbal brings forth a slew of assumptions about me that are entirely inaccurate – including lack of understanding language, aggressive behaviour, lack of emotional intelligence, and cognitive impairment.

I prefer non-speaking as it is a short description that encapsulates who I am more accurately. It also makes people stop and think instead of relying on what they know about me based on what they observe.

Jordyn Pallett, On Using NonSpeaking, Minimally Speaking, Or Unreliably Speaking Over “Non-Verbal”: NonSpeakers Weigh In » NeuroClastic
See Us. Hear Us. – Jordyn Zimmerman
Autastic Tom Nonspeaking Video (Episode #17)
This Is Not About Me – Trailer

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog with my communication partner Kelly about why we say nonspeaking instead of nonverbal. Unreliable speakers like myself have lots of speech, however, we don’t communicate our true thoughts using our speech. That must be confusing for many with the thought that only those with no speech are nonspeakers. There are some perhaps whose thought is that we make the term nonspeaker mean only those who never speak. 

I am a nonspeaker. To call me any different would suggest that my speech has intent, which it rarely does unless I am reading my own words on a screen or script. This video shows me reading a script I typed out with Kelly holding a keyboard. The words were printed out onto paper and the papers are then held up when I am filming. With no script what you are seeing would be impossible for me to do. 

I want everyone to understand that having purposeful speech is so difficult for me. I want to make that clear. I truly hope you will take the time to watch my video and really listen to the words of a nonspeaker.

Confusion in your mind about the term nonspeaking? – I-ASC

You can find a list of nonspeaking advocates to follow on NeuroClastic’s Nonspeaker Directory.

Further reading,