Easy Silence: I am still learning to communicate

I was once working with a child on the autism spectrum… (not H) and this opportunity had me considering, I mean really considering, what it must be like to be him. He had so many challenges and did not use words to communicate.

He did communicate though: his actions and his behaviour were his communication, and it was up to the rest of us to figure it out and learn his language.

How often do we have our world, our schools, our expectations set up so that it is those with the social cognitive challenges that are expected to “fit in” and “get it”, instead of having those of us with the social cognitive strength doing the work – or at least a fair part of it?

Our work together was challenging, but often joyful. I was relaxed and counted upon his ability to communicate the pace, and my ability to read his language. He was learning to trust that I was going to watch and notice what he was saying, and he was becoming more engaged. If autism is considered a disability that (among other things) affects social interaction – then it seemed right that we should be working on a relationship and communication. During our time together I was considering – as I have so many times – how often a child like this is forced to bend to the agenda of everyone else. I think we sometimes call this intervention – or therapy.

I couldn’t squish this kid into doing my will, and I didn’t want to, but together we made steps toward understanding each other. I did not want to impose my plan on this other being, and then when I could make him bend to it, point to it and say, “See – wasn’t that effective.

If I really want to have an impact with the work I am doing, whether it is with children, parents, or educators, it is important to notice, honour, and respond in a meaningful way to what they communicate about themselves and their experience of the world around them.


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2011)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in Autism, Behaviour, Communicate, Intervention, language, Neurotypical, promote social understanding, Silence, Social cognition, Special Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Easy Silence: I am still learning to communicate

  1. suvarna says:

    I feel guilt over this in my own situation daily, how often am I trying to make him bend to my own will under the guise of “helping him. ” I realize they need us not to be accomodating them all the time, that would be crippling, but really listening to their needs, that takes skill and practise. Something I hope we get better at as we learn and grow with them.
    Have I told you yet how great this blog is? I hope lots of people are reading it.


  2. Pingback: Easy Silence: I am still learning to communicate (via Thirty Days of Autism) | Thirty Days of Autism

  3. Zaiene says:

    You have such a lovely perspective on interacting with these kids. One of my frustrations being a primary teacher in Victoria/Australia is how there is no time and too much pressure for us to engage in a way that will really help enough kids with their various individual needs (and I mean all the kids in the class). We have to put together individual learning plans with clear, measurable outcomes and have failed if we can’t demonstrate clear progress. When I had my own classes (I’m a relief/substitute teacher now) I barely felt like I had time to give the “average” kids the individual attention they needed, let alone the ones who needed more than average attention. Sorry, that turned into a bit of a rant! The point is that I love how you are able to hold onto the idea of tuning into the individual child.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Wow… what a wonderful comment! Thank you for bringing up very important points. I understand your frustration… I often felt that as well when I was a regular education teacher. Interestingly enough, I just heard our Provincial Minster of Education on CBC radio today state that there is no indication that class size affects instruction. What???
      I still feel the lack of time to do all that I would like with students, but I am privileged to have a job as a special education teacher where I work one-on-one with children and their families. I do understand why there is a need to have “individual learning plans with clear, measurable outcomes” but I agree with you that there needs to be a balance as there are other ways to measure success with a child. Developing relationships, student engagement, enjoyment, cooperation, and quality of life… I try to keep these in the foreground…


  4. Zainene, I get where you’re coming from too in the sense that the system is not yet set up to deal with full inclusion. I often feel like with my older son who is mildly autistic, that the special ed team puts too much pressure on the teacher to take care of his needs, because they don’t want to have to give him his own para. The last IEP meeting I attended a couple wks ago I demanded they account for who is going to actually implement all these special accommodations in his plan, because it can’t all fall on the teacher who needs to tend to the class. Surprisingly, I was backed up by some of the staff.

    Leah, great post! Timely, in that I’m going to talk to one of my younger son’s one on one workers this morning about replacing another worker who isn’t working out for us. I will not abide anyone doing old school ABA focusing heavily on compliance with him. This other worker wants to skirt my well stated boundaries and impose her will on his and not respect his space as an individual. She is doing what she’s trained to do, but in my home with therapy with my son he will be respected and met at his level. He doesn’t like her and she gets pretty scratched up from him, as well. Things go so much smoother when the teacher bonds empathetically with the child and lets them take the lead. You’re doing great work!


  5. Leah Kelley says:

    QC: Thank you for sharing your perspective… and your kind words as well.
    You make very good points about that tricky line. You have your children on both sides of it perhaps. Your older boy – like H, might so approximate typical that it is hard for others to see and understand his challenges and give the kind of support he needs when he needs it. On the other hand – there is the challenge of having a child who is more obviously impacted and then the difficulty can be in having others understand and honour the individual and what it is they might be saying. It seems that the common ground in either situation is that it is the relationship that needs to be at the heart of what we do…


  6. Erin says:

    Thank you for so eloquently expressing the idea of autistics having their own language and that you were willing to learn what that language is. I have tried all my life to figure out how to communicate with people. It was very frustrating for me. I could never figure out why it was so hard for me, but seemed so easy for everyone else. Why did I always feel I had to script everything before I spoke? Why would my mind go blank when presented with something I hadn’t scripted for? So often I would feel that I had “stuck my foot in my mouth” when talking to people. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Aspergers two years ago that I finally understood. I was trying to speak in a language that wasn’t my own and in a way that wasn’t my own. The mannerisms that I was using weren’t naturally my own. I was mimicing something I didn’t understand and couldn’t quite get it right. Now I am speaking more in the form of writing and my husband (an NT) is also learning my non-verbal cues so he can help me if he notices that I am getting overloaded. Autistic non-verbal cues are not necessarily the same as neurotypical non-verbal cues. My husband is also trying to be more specific when he talks to me, because I can’t “read between the lines” and trying to infer about something someone said can be very difficult can confusing for me.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Ahh… Erin!
      You express yourself so beautifully and bring to the fore important considerations. The idea that those on the spectrum are not unable or challenged with reading non-verbal cures – but that they actually have different non-verbal language is an important perspective. This is another example of why we need to be listening to adults with autism/autistic adults to guide us in our supports and teachings with our children. I love that your husband is working to learn about your communication style and to read your non-verbal cues, in order to understand and support you. We all need situate ourselves in that stance… communication requires at least two participants!

      And… I can’t help wondering when you are going to begin your own blog (just a wee nudge). When/if you do, I hope that you will continue to leave your insightful comments here as well!



  7. Pingback: Easy Silence Part 2: The Yin and Yang of Privilege and Empowerment | Thirty Days of Autism

  8. I really like reading an article that can make people think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!


  9. Pingback: Easy Silence Part 2: The Yin and Yang of Privilege and Empowerment | Thirty Days of Autism

  10. Leah Kelley says:

    Reblogged this on Thirty Days of Autism and commented:

    Yesterday I saw a disturbing video posted on facebook – where a child was being forced to say “mama” or make an “mmm” sound.

    All the communicative efforts of that little girl were ignored, which was dishonouring of the child. What I saw was a compliance based approach that is destroying of trust and damaging of a relationship this young child should be able to count upon (her parent).

    And from an educational perspective the desired behaviour was so narrowly targeted that success was a long shot. That does not build confidence and capacity – that is not how good responsive teaching happens. I suspect that she did not even understand why she finally got the fricken gummy.

    Good teaching (and parenting) is a dance – with two (or more) partners…
    It is give and take…
    It is turn taking…
    It is “Here, you take the lead for a while…”
    It is “I see you…” “I hear you…” “I understand…”

    Here is a post from the 30 Days archives that I think is relevant to consider…


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