Search This Blog

Friday, February 13, 2015

Autism and Unspoken Love

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" ~ William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Can love be understood and experienced if a person can't even say the word? 

There is a common misconception that individuals on the autism spectrum are emotionless, and that misunderstanding is magnified when an individual is also non-verbal (for more on the this topic, read this blog post from our archives: Drawing Out Emotion in Autism - May 2013) My experience (working with many ASD people over the years) has been that while emotions in autism may not be easily named or conventionally expressed, they are certainly strongly felt.

So, on the topic of understanding love, I would like to share a visual story that Adam drew years ago when he was in elementary school and mostly non-verbal. At that time, he was often overwhelmed by the larger world, and to most people he looked like he had two states: sort of okay and distressed. Those of us who were privileged to know him better would also see laughter and excitement (usually connected to the action cartoons that he loved to watch time and again), but he didn't physically convey more subtle emotional states.

One day, I gave Adam a "story starter" picture of a man with a fishing pole, hoping to get some sort of "action and reaction" coherent storyline. The first four frames of the story are definitely action-packed:

Man and fish: part 1 ... drawn by Adam, 2001

But frames 5-8 of the story were an interesting surprise:

Man and fish: part 2 ... drawn by Adam, 2001

... self-satisfied man (thumbs up!) leaves the fishing spot carrying the "catch of the day" and brings it home with a smile to his wife, she in turn cooks up his fish offering and then the two of them sit down to a lovely seafood dinner. A warm picture of love shared between a man and his wife.

Once again, Adam's drawn communication had revealed thoughts, feelings and social understanding that were not at all evident in his interactions with the world. He showed us that he understood the emotions of love and caring for other people and knew how people expressed those emotions in their actions and interactions. Not being able to say it in words or facial expressions or physical actions did not mean that he was unable to feel the emotions or intellectually understand the social dynamic. Even though we set the bar high and believed in Adam's ability, we had underestimated the complexity of thinking he already had - a valuable lesson for all of us, and one that has been repeated and reinforced many times over the years since he drew this story.

More and more non-verbal autistic individuals are finding alternate ways of communicating (through typing, through art, through music). What these individuals show at a surface level is often not at all what's happening underneath. Presume competence, develop alternate communication channels, listen carefully and respect the autism perspective.

"All people with autism must be offered some way to communicate because we have minds, and thoughts, and feelings ... Life is beautiful the autistic way." Henry, 14-yr-old with non-verbal autism who communicates by pointing to a letter board (from his Roses are Red for Autism blog)