Insights From a Non-Talker: Emma’s Conversation With A Friend

The following is a conversation Emma, Richard and I had with a friend of ours who works at a school.  (DF = dear friend)  I have paraphrased DF’s part of the conversation because a) I cannot type as quickly as she speaks and b) she was thinking out loud at certain points, so I just wrote the gist of what she was saying. All of Emma’s words are what she typed.  Both DF and Emma gave permission to have their words posted here.  As Emma wrote – “People need to understand.”

DF:  I’ve been thinking about your presentation (click ‘here‘ to watch Emma’s presentation) and the body/mind disconnect that you talked about during your presentation last week.  I was thinking about being respectful and making faces back at you and I know you’re smart, but I was afraid that if you can’t control your body and don’t mean to make faces, is it disrespectful to make faces back?

Emma:  Making faces is fun communication in my chosen language.

DF:  Is it also the same for the words you sometimes use?  So, if you’re saying a word like “peacock”, is it respectful to repeat it back and play with words that way?

Emma:  Playing in all ways is my favored way of interacting with people even when they don’t speak silly.

DF:  Sometimes I feel bad because I want to ask you questions because I want to know you better, but I don’t want to ask because I know how hard work it is for you to answer.

Emma:  Talkers always want words, as though everyone stated exactly what they meant.

Richard & Ariane:  (we both asked similar questions, but in different ways, this is a combined version of what we asked) Emma, I’m curious…  when you say “peacock” sometimes you are singing in an operatic voice, but other times you are saying the word over and over while also saying “peek-a-boo” so I’m wondering are you mimicking the bird or are you playing around with the words, “peek-a-boo”?

Instead of pointing to the “y” or “n” for yes or no, Emma pointed to the letter, “w”.  This led to a quick back and forth between us, talkers, about how Emma rarely just answers yes or no when given the opportunity to, but instead writes much more.  I even then joked to Emma, “Em, that was a yes or no question.  You can just hit “y” for yes or “n” for no!”

Emma:  Word play is joyful and I think obvious joy is had with both associations.  Decision to sing while thinking about birds with peek-a-boo tail  feathers brings happy feelings.

Ariane:  Oh my gosh, Emma!  That’s so amazing.  The tail feathers look like hundreds of eyes and they are only fanned out at particular times!  So this wasn’t a yes or no question after all!

We then discussed peacocks, their beautiful plumage and how we often thought we were asking a yes or no question, only to realize how wrong this assumption is.

DF:  Okay, so here’s a problem that many teachers have at school.  A lot of times kids your age or older have fascinations with things that talkers think are inappropriate.  Things like a teenager who likes Teletubbies or wants to carry around a stuffed animal or wants to talk about Thomas the Tank Engine.  We want to be respectful and treat that kid like a mature teenager, but we don’t feel comfortable talking about Teletubbies or Thomas the Tank Engine.

Emma:  This is their fear of indulging a mind that they suspect is simple, but someone who is known to be brilliant would be thought eccentric.

DF:  Should I defend their right to explore their interest in school?

Emma:  Yes, expressions are not threatening and harm none.

*Quick aside – using interests as the gateway to other academics is how many homeschool/unschool .

Richard:  In the past, while watching you type, you’ve made faces at me and I’ve made faces back and was told not to do that.  But I’ve seen you making faces and you still are able to type, should we feel free to make faces with you while you’re typing?

Emma:  This is a difficult answer because I prefer to make faces, but I know how much you want to talk.

R:  What I meant was, do you enjoy having someone make faces back while you’re typing or would you prefer they did not?

E:  I would love to just make faces and not type.

*Another quick aside – so this is the ongoing struggle of all parents it seems to me.  It’s those grey areas when we ask our children to do something, even when they may not always want to.  For us, we put boundaries around typing sessions, so there is a clear beginning, middle and end.  As with most parents, we hope our decision is the right one.

Ariane:  Talk to me about when you say to guests, “good-bye”.  Often you say it shortly after they’ve arrived, sometimes immediately after they’ve finished dinner.  You can clear the room in seconds because they think you want them to leave.  But do you want them to leave?

Emma:  Saying good-bye to some is because I think they need to go, but other times I am sad and say it because I don’t want them to leave.

*Emma then made a sad face and pretended to cry.

Richard:  That’s a good face to make when you’re sad that they must go!

DF, Richard and I circled back to DF’s question about students who have interests in things that the non-autistic educators deem not age appropriate.

Emma:  It’s hypocritical though, because I was often given very young books, more suited for a toddler.


I asked Emma what image she wanted with this post, she typed, "google - "talking" and then chose this.

I asked Emma what image she wanted with this post, she typed, “google – “talking” and then chose this.

14 responses to “Insights From a Non-Talker: Emma’s Conversation With A Friend

  1. You know what? When it’s time to go, Goodbye. And yes, i am sad, but also? Please go. Love that – totally agree.
    My G and I would love to join in with the faces, too, though they might not express what we mean to mean to you, exactly. Sounds like that would be fine 😉

  2. I make lots of faces. I showed my boyfriend the presentation from months ago and he asked, “why does Emma make that face?” I said, “I make that face, too.” He said, “not exactly the same face. Why does she do it?” He seemed to think there was a different reason from why I make faces because they are different faces. Now I can show him this and he can understand that the faces are different, but the reason is very similar or maybe even the same.

  3. I am actually really relieved to hear that Emma describes not wanting to type. I’ve seen a certain tone of effusiveness in the way some people talk about RPM. That tone raises red flags for me, in ways that made me wonder if anyone has ever used RPM to communicate things like “I don’t like typing” or “I don’t like Soma.”

    No teacher or method is actually universally beloved, so it scares me when I can’t find any students griping about a particular teacher or method.

    So, like, it’s not that I’m happy that Emma doesn’t like typing. But I’m really relieved that she is *allowed* and *able* to express that she doesn’t like typing.

    Across DD therapies and instruction methods, I’ve seen too many vulnerable people taught that This Is Fun and You Like It (and Your Teacher/Therapist is a Nice Lady and You Like Her), and that they’d better look happy and praise them no matter what.

    So… I’m glad that Emma is being respected as a person who has the right to her feelings and opinions about what she’s doing and what’s being done to her. That’s really important.

    • This is such a good point and I’m glad you raised it.

      I should mention that “DF” is one of Emma’s favorite people in the world. She absolutely adores her and asks to have her come over often. I do not think Emma would have kept going for the length of time that she did had this conversation not been with this very special and specific person whom she loves. It was the first time she has had such a lengthy conversation with someone when we did not have the timer on. And today? Today, she was exhausted. I know it took a tremendous amount out of her.
      So today, Emma has the day off. She is doing exactly what she wants and we have done exactly as she has requested. RIchard has been with her all afternoon, taking her to all her favorite places.
      I just need to add that it was an Autistic friend of mine (and someone who typically can use spoken language) who once told me how upsetting it is to her that people are unable to understand and realize the toll it takes for her to speak, even though she comes across as a fluent speaker. I’ve never forgotten her words.
      I’m also really, really grateful that Emma feels free to say (as she did this morning) “I can’t. I’m too tired.”

  4. “Talkers always want words, as though everyone stated exactly what they meant.” — The Dolly Lama

    Truer words never spoken. Emma=Bodhisattva

  5. This is such a brilliant conversation! Great points brought up and eloquently answered, thank you Emma! I use interests greatly to homeschool my kids. We don’t put labels on them according to ‘age appropriateness’ they are just interests! 🙂

    • Now that we have pulled Emma from school, (such a massive relief for all of us) we too are following her interests and everyone is SO much happier. I actually am surprised at how stressed I was, but didn’t realize it until we pulled her out, and Emma? Emma is so, so much happier.

  6. One of the girls I work with is so much like Emma. Unfortunately, it’s an ABA program. 😦 Today, I wanted to use one of her favorite TV shows as a reinforcer, but was told no because she will just repeat the voices and it’s innaprorpriate. :/ I am so glad to have read this because it makes me happy that I knew to do the right thing even though I couldn’t.
    I also tried a little bit of RPM today secretly. She answered. It was cool. Looking into getting certified in RPM and getting out of this public school.

  7. *Reprinted here from the email sent to me earlier.*
    “DF here. I am moved and touched and honored. Emma, you’ve given me the great gift of your words. I know they come at a cost to you and that makes them even more meaningful. They are powerful. The things that you have said have changed me and the way I think about kids with autism and they have begun to change the way I work and with time, I hope, the way others work as well. I hope that makes typing worth the effort for you. And I’m happy to make faces with you if it makes it any easier!”

  8. Emma, I hope you believe in magic, because you ARE magic. I was watching a video of you during a presentation. You were making your incredible faces. Intellectually, I was totally aware that there was no way you could possibly be aware of my existence. Still, I could not help but make faces back, and sometimes it FELT like some of those faces were a personal gift to me.

    Thank you.

  9. Little truth better stated than in this piece.
    Little truth, extra joy in my silent smirks.
    Big truth, tell us more!

  10. Go to the book store and look for a book titled “The Laws of Learning”. You will not find it. There are no laws of learning, only learning THEORY. As an educator and parent of a child with autism it is imperative that all adults remember that learning occurs and connections are made from everywhere and anywhere.
    If Mickey Mouse can help my son to speak in longer sentences and better understand and navigate his environment then Mickey Mouse it is! He used to get upset when he was frustrated. Then one day he simply called out “Oh Toodles!” I right away knew he had a problem and needed help. That’s what Mickey does when he needs help. He calls for Toodles. Obviously a 10 year old shouting “Oh Toodles” is considered inappropriate, but eventually we were able to substitute and give him the phrase “I need your help”, but it all started with Mickey and we were able to morph that into a more age appropriate phrase. Do what makes sense and feels right. Have confidence and btw (to Little One) all teachers sometimes must “secretly” do what is right. Look at the best teacher ever, Anne Sullivan. She demanded full autonomy to take the path less travelled and boy did it make all the difference!

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