for parents

“I don’t want him to feel different”

I’ve encountered a lot of parents and professionals who are reluctant to talk to disabled children about their disabilities.

People often believe that children with disabilities are innocent, and that they can protect their innocence with silence. They express concerns along the lines of “I don’t want him to think something is wrong with him,” or “I don’t want her to feel different,” or “I don’t want them to feel bad about themself.”

You can’t protect disabled kids this way. They know that they are different, and they know that this difference is perceived negatively.

Some examples of how kids figure out that they are different:

  • Kids watch what other kids do.
  • Typically developing younger siblings develop skills that they still haven’t mastered and may never master. They notice. They also notice how their parents react to this.
  • Kids with disabilities often see other kids their age doing something that looks fun, try to join in, and find that they can’t keep up. They notice, and they have feelings about this.
  • They also notice when other kids think they’re weird or boring and avoid them.
  • If they go to a special education program, they notice that other kids don’t take the short bus to school (and they hear what other kids say about the short bus, or they see it in their body language.)
  • They also notice that their school is really different from schools on TV and in stories.
  • All the kids their age on TV and in stories can do things that they can’t do. They notice.
  • Disabled kids often struggle to understand something that’s clear to everyone else in the room. They notice that this happens a lot.
  • Kids with disabilities get called the r-word, or the moral equivalent. 
  • Adults expect them to do things that they can’t on a regular basis. Other kids their age can. Adults are disappointed or angry. They notice.
  • Kids notice when they have to go to therapy and other kids don’t.
  • Kids notice when doctors hold them down for painful procedures while they struggle and cry. They notice that this doesn’t happen to kids in stories and that it’s not in any of the books about being a kid.
  • They notice that they have a lot of tests and that they’re talked to in ways that other kids aren’t.
  • They are often required to follow rules that other kids don’t have to follow. They notice that, too.
  • Parents talk about how tired, scared, and overwhelmed they are by their child’s needs or navigating the systems. Kids overhear. 
  • Many kids also eventually overhear the name of their condition and google it. 
  • And any number of other things.

Your silence doesn’t protect them from any of these experiences; it just isolates them. Kids are already bearing the pain of disability and of other people’s reactions to their disability. If no one will talk to them about it, they are also very, very alone. You can’t protect their innocence; you can break the silence that isolates them.

Reader suggestions for non-ABA help for autistic children

Content note: I wrote a post a while ago about resources other than ABA for autistic children. Here are three more suggestions from an anonymous reader:


To the mom against ABA:Try getting him lessons in things he enjoys. They’ll teach him structure while letting him know his interests are important to you ( autistic kids’ interests are often discouraged if they have “too much interest” in them)

For the mom not wanting ABA: I’m autistic. When I was young, my parents put me in horse riding lessons and voice lessons. The horse lessons helped me develop communication skills, which in turn helped me communicate with other humans better.

For mom who doesn’t want ABA: Taking voice lessons helped me with pronunciation and tone of voice by teaching me to match pitches, which is how I learned to apply tone of voice by mimicking how others sounded when they said certain things.

realsocialskills said:

I like these suggestions. I think they’re not necessarily for everyone, but could be amazingly good for a lot of kids. Thank you, anon.

AAC does not replace nonverbal communication

This is a continuation of a series on why I think it’s a mistake to ignore nonverbal communication in an attempt to force someone to use AAC. (The short version: it’s disrespectful, it undermines someone’s ability to communicate, and it prevents people from developing a valuable skill.)

One reason nonverbal communication is important for AAC users is that you always have your body with you. That is not necessarily the case for AAC devices.

AAC best practices say that someone should have them available constantly. In practice, people don’t. This is for several reasons. One is that it’s not practical to take a device to some places (for instance, most people are not willing to take a high tech device to the beach, and low tech devices are a lot more limiting.) Another reason is that sometimes people forget, or vastly underestimate how close a device needs to be in order to be immediately available. Or any number of reasons, some innocent and some horrifying, and many a mixture of both.

Also, people take devices away from AAC users. They shouldn’t, but they do. Sometimes it’s accidental; sometimes it’s on purpose. It’s never ok, but people do it a lot. If you’re teaching a nonverbal child to communicate, you need to keep this in mind when you’re considering what to teach them. You can’t assume that people will always treat them appropriately, and you can’t assume that they will always have their device. If they are capable of communicating with their body, it is an important skill for them.

Whatever else happens, someone always has their body with them. People can do a lot more if they can use their body to communicate. Communicating in body language can make it possible to communicate in a swimming pool. It can make it possible to communicate with dirty hands. It can make it possible for someone to indicate that their device isn’t within reach and that they need it. It can make it possible to communicate about pain in medical situations. It can make it possible to communicate when someone else doesn’t want you to, and has taken your device away. It can make friendship possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. And any number of other things, all of which are important.

And in order to be able to communicate with body language, people need opportunities to practice and develop this skill. If you ignore someone’s nonverbal communication to encourage AAC use, you’re making it harder for them to develop comprehensible body language. That’s not a good idea, because comprehensible body language is important. People won’t always have access to their device. They will always have their body.

tl;dr Nonverbal communication is important for nonverbal people, but parents are often encouraged to pretend not to understand it in order to encourage AAC use. This makes it harder for people to develop body language that others can understand. One reason this is a problem is that people don’t always have access to their devices, but people *do* always have access to their bodies. Nonverbal people should have support in developing nonverbal communication, because it is an important skill.

AAC is not a cure

This is a continuation of a series on why I think it’s important to listen to the nonverbal communication of nonverbal people. Often, parents are encouraged to not listen or to pretend not to understand, so that kids will be forced to learn AAC and use words. I think this is a mistake, for any number of reasons. The first post focused on the general importance of listening.

Another problem with this advice is that ignoring nonverbal communication discourages people from developing their nonverbal communication skills. That’s a bad idea, because nonverbal communication is a very useful skill for nonverbal people. It should be encouraged, not discouraged.

It’s valuable for several different reasons (and I assume, for many reasons I don’t know about.)

One is that AAC is not a cure, and it doesn’t make nonspeaking people just like people who can talk. Nonverbal people who have communication devices are still nonverbal. Currently existing AAC devices can’t do everything that speech can do. For instance:

  • AAC devices mostly can’t do tone. Voices usually can.
  • AAC devices can’t go everywhere. Voices usually can.
  • AAC devices can be taken away much, much more easily than voices can.
  • AAC is usually slow. That makes interrupting hard-to-impossible. Voices can usually be used to interrupt.
  • AAC is usually fairly quiet. Voices can usually yell.
  • Symbol-based devices generally don’t have anywhere close to sufficient vocabulary for emotional or physical intimacy. Voices do.
  • Many AAC devices give others a lot of control over what someone can say. Voices are usually more flexible.

For a lot of these things, body language and movement can be a more effective way of communicating than using a speech device. For instance, putting up a hand to say “stop!” is a lot more likely to be understood quickly than using an AAC device to say the same thing.

Similarly, most symbol sets developed that touch on sexuality at all assume the main reason people need sexual vocabulary is to be able to report abuse. Most of them don’t have robust symbols for discussing sexuality and sexual desire — and most of them don’t have any symbols for emotional intimacy at all. Body language can communicate things that a system designed this way can’t.

Another reason AAC is not like speech is that people who are nonspeaking, are nonspeaking for reasons. And AAC does not make those reasons go away.

Some people are nonspeaking because words are unnatural, painful, and cognitively draining. People like that deserve to be able to communicate in ways that are natural and comfortable. And it’s important for people close to them to listen to their natural communication. Ignoring someone’s most natural communication it is a rejection of their personhood. It’s important not to do that to people.

It’s also dangerous, because someone who finds AAC cognitively difficult and draining is likely not going to be able to use it all the time. For some people, this can be especially true when it’s particularly important to communicate, or when they’re sick. If you’re responsible for someone and you only know how to listen when they use AAC, that’s dangerous. If there’s another way they communicate, it’s important to develop your ability to understand it. (Or, if you can’t, to find someone who can.)

Similarly, if someone has apraxia or other difficulties controlling their body well enough to point, their physical ability to use AAC is likely to vary. And it’s still important to listen to them when they aren’t able to use it in the ways they sometimes can.

tl;dr Access to AAC is important. It’s not the only thing that’s important, and it’s not a cure. Nonverbal people who use AAC are still nonverbal. Body language and using one’s body to communicate are also important skills. (Not everyone can learn to do this. For people who can, it’s valuable.) It is not a good idea to discourage AAC users from using body language to communicate.

In defense of nonverbal communication

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts giving parents of nonverbal kids the advice “pretend not to understand your child so that they will be forced to use AAC and communicate in words”.

I think this is a mistake.

I think that if you want to teach someone to communicate, it has to be built on a foundation of listening to them. And that means listening to all of their communication, not just communication that happens in words.

I also think that all of someone’s communication methods are important, and that they all need to be respected. There isn’t one true method of communication. They all matter.

Communicating through body language is useful for all people. People who can talk are allowed to communicate through body language, and actively encouraged to develop the skill of doing so. It’s expected that, when I smile, point to things, frown, or whatever, that people will listen to what I’m communicating. Nonspeaking people deserve the same respect.

People say “communication shouldn’t wait for speech”. I agree with that. And I think it shouldn’t wait for words either. Because words may never come. If you wait for someone to reliably use words to listen to them, you may end up never listening to them. And everyone deserves to be heard.

And even if they will eventually use words and sentences, the things they’re saying *now* still matter. And listening to them is still important.

Presuming competence shouldn’t mean assuming that with the right support, people will eventually base most of their communication on words. Presuming competence should mean assuming that, with the right support, people will choose the means of communication that work best for them. Which may be speech. Or a voice output communication device. Or sign. Or body language. Or pointing to a letter board. Or speech. Or any number of other things. Or any number of combinations of things.

tl;dr Everyone deserves to be listened to. If you want to support someone in learning to communicate, it has to be built on a foundation of listening to them — in whatever form their communication takes. Ignoring one form of communication to force them to learn a different form is not respectful, and probably won’t help.

A reason your kids need you to talk to them about their disability

Sometimes parents avoid talking to disabled kids about disability because they don’t want to make them feel different.

The thing is, it’s not actually possible to prevent your child from noticing that they are different. They will notice that they aren’t just like all the other kids. Partly because it’s obvious. Kids compare themselves to other kids, and to adults that they observe. Disability is as noticeable as the fact that some people are fat, female, tall, short, black, white, or whatever else. Kids notice differences. They will notice this difference too. And that’s ok.

They will notice that you are willing to talk about some differences, but not others. If you refuse to talk about disability, they will still know that they are different. They will just learn that you consider the difference unspeakable.

They will also notice what other people think about them and their disability.

People will stare at your child and make disparaging remarks. People will call them the r-word, and every other disability slur. They will say “special” and “special needs” with a sneer. They will make fun of your child for not being able to do things. They will say, or imply, that they would be able to do them if they’d just try harder.

You can stop some people from doing this to your child (and you should), but you can’t stop them from ever encountering it. They will probably encounter it every day. They will know that they are different from other people, and our culture will teach them incredibly destructive things about what that means.

You can’t stop your child from hearing what our culture thinks of disability — and if you don’t talk about disability yourself, your child will believe that you agree with it.

If you don’t talk to your child about their disability, the only words they will have for themselves are slurs they hear other people call them. You can give them better words, and better information.

If you don’t talk to your child about their disability, they will end up with a lot of misinformation about what their difference means. If you talk to them, you can tell them the truth.

tl;dr Refusing to talk to kids about disability doesn’t protect them from feeling different. It just prevents them from getting accurate information about what their disability is and what their difference means. When kids who don’t know the truth about their disability face hate, they have little-to-no protection against internalizing it.

A behavior modification aftermath

Content note: This post is written with parents and professionals in mind. It’s about a common way that rewards-based behavior modification hurts people, and the importance of being aware of that effect in work with people who might be ABA survivors.

I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning people who are trying to fix special education and adult disability services say things like “you have to find out what they’re interested in and incorporate it.”

This can be good advice. It’s also important to realize that this is loaded, and that not all disabled people are going to be willing or able to show you what they’re interested in.

For people with disabilities, “what do you like?” can be a deeply intimate personal question. It can be very dangerous to let people know what you are interested in.

Autistic people (and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities) are often subjected to intense behavior modification. This is often aimed at silencing them, getting them to pretend to be non-autistic, or otherwise change in ways that deny fundamental things about who they are.

You have to take some pretty extreme methods to get someone to comply with that kind of behavior program. One traditional way is to use painful punishment like starvation and electric shock. These days, that’s considered distasteful, and most therapists prefer to use positive methods.

In practice, what that often means is that anything a disabled person expresses interest in will be taken away and used as a reinforcer for a behavior plan. The more they care about something, the more their access to it will be contingent with compliance with what powerful people in their life want.

Even if the thing they care about is something like math. Or books. Or access to fresh air. Or their teddy bear.

People subjected to this kind of thing learn quickly that when they express interest in something, it will probably be taken away.

And beyond that, they learn that when people know what you care about, they will use it to manipulate you into doing awful things to yourself. In many cases, this includes being manipulated into maintaining a grateful affect and praising the therapist.

When people have experienced this type of violation, sharing their interests with anyone is a big risk. Particularly if that person has power over them. Particularly if that person is a member of a professional culture that largely approves of what was done to them. (And if you’re a teacher, therapist, direct support professional, or similar, you have power over them and your professional culture approves of misusing it.)

It’s important to keep in mind that people you work with have every reason to believe that it is dangerous to tell you what they care about. They don’t know what you will do with that information, and have every reason to believe that you will use it against them. (Or that information they give you will get back to people who will do so.) It might take a long time before some people are willing to share their interests. Some people may never trust you. The way you teach and offer support needs to take this into account.

tl;dr It’s important to be aware of the loaded nature of asking disabled people to express interest in things. It’s important to make space to incorporate interests; it’s also important to allow people to keep their interests private.