How can we know what’s really going on inside of a child’s mind who is unable to adequately express themselves? For neurotypical children we have tests, we ask questions – all verbal or written ways of finding out what they know, whether they’ve learned whatever it is we are trying to teach them. But what of non-neurotypical children? How can we really know what they know?
It is this question which causes more confusion than perhaps any other. Our methods of rating intelligence are deeply flawed. IQ tests are notoriously incorrect when attempting to gauge the intelligence of a non-verbal person. Over the years other tests have been created to gain a better idea of intelligence, but nothing we’ve come up with can adequately give us an accurate view of what these children know, what they may be thinking if they could only express themselves.
When confronted with a non-verbal person most of us immediately assume they do not understand and conclude they are not very bright. Have you ever been to a country whose language you do not speak and noticed how you are treated? Often it is as though you were an imbecile. People tend to repeat the same words over and over again, turning the volume up in the mistaken belief your problem is one of hearing as opposed to understanding or being unable to verbalize a response. We rate intelligence by verbal acuity.
Every now and then we hear of communication devices children have been taught to use, allowing them to communicate in ways they had not been able to previously. We are astonished at what they say, how lucid and mature they sound. I’ve read numerous accounts of sessions in which children “speak” to one another in complex sentences, children we would never assume had it in them. Just because we cannot understand doesn’t mean the person we can’t understand isn’t intelligent or has nothing of interest to say. All it means is we are not able to understand them.
When Emma was diagnosed with autism at the age of two years and eight months, much of the evaluation conducted by the therapist was directed at us. I remember at the time thinking the process a curious one. They were evaluating our daughter by asking Richard and me questions which we often had very different answers to.
How many words does she speak?
“Between ten and fifteen,” I’d answer.
“No, no, she knows many more than that,” Richard would say.
And the truth was she did know a great many more than she was articulating, but the actual word count of recognizable words was probably closer to my answer. So whose answer was more accurate?
Most of us want to feel understood and heard. Can you imagine what it must be like to know that no matter what you said, it would be met with confusion? Can you imagine trying to make your needs known only to have them ignored or misunderstood? Can you imagine what it must be like to have a very complex thought process only to realize no one understands you?
I cannot imagine. Everyday I am with Emma, I try to and I cannot.
What I do understand is how very lonely it must be.