Mute, Not “Dumb”



People, and especially educators, need to become aware that “not talking” is not the same as “not thinking”.

Society mostly views non-verbal children and adults as intellectually deficient.  People automatically assume that if someone can not speak well (or at all) that they therefore can not think well (or at all).  This is completely inaccurate, and does a great disservice to those with speech and communication problems, causing them to be ignored, bullied, and discriminated against, in schools and in the community.  This needs to change.  People need to become aware that “not talking” is not the same as “not thinking”.

The problem non-verbals often have is with processing, communication, and regulation, not a problem with intelligence.  The brain is a vast, complex organism.  Just because one part of the brain may have some troubles, that does not mean the entire brain is not functioning properly. People who lack speaking skills often still have very high levels of intelligence.  It is just a matter of properly supporting them, so they are able to express themselves accordingly. 

I know numerous nonverbal Autistic teens and adults who are profound and eloquent thinkers and writers.  But they have trouble speaking verbally.  Their intelligence and abilities were underestimated for years (before they learned to type), and they have often suffered from abuse and neglect and have struggled to be heard. If you give nonverbal people the means to express themselves and the support to learn how to express themselves, you will often see that they are more intelligent than most of the “talkers” you know. 

These thoughts about speakers vs non-speakers or limited speakers begs the following questions: “Why do people give so much weight to speech?”  “Why is it that people who have trouble speaking are automatically assumed to be “stupid”,”not there”, have nothing to say?”  It is an assumption that is pretty strongly ingrained in our collective cultural psyche.  Even the word “dumb” has often been substituted for the word “mute”, though that has gratefully fallen out of style in recent years.  Why is intelligence so tightly connected to how much someone speaks?   Society needs to drastically change its mind about the links between speech and intelligence, and the best places to start making those changes are in the fields of Psychology and Education.

Currently, the Education industry believes nonverbal children can’t learn, can’t be taught, and that there’s no need to bother teaching them.  Special needs students, and especially Autistic students, are further divided by the education industry into horrible “categories” like “high-functioning” (usually applied to students that don’t have problems speaking or problems with intelligence but maybe have problems sitting still/making eye contact/making friends/have some learning disabilities) and “low-functioning” (usually applied to students who have trouble speaking, where it is automatically assumed that trouble speaking equals low intelligence). 

If you look into most Special Education graduate programs at even the top universities, you will see, for example, that the study of Autism is always coupled with “Intellectual Disability”. However, many non-verbal Autistics are very bright, just unable to get their intelligence across in traditional ways, but these harmful assumptions about their lack of intelligence and these harmful functioning labels are denying them equal access to a proper education or to a proper chance at life.

Psychological evaluation and diagnosing of Autistics is also very much to blame, as these evaluations often inform and support educators’ decisions to isolate and discriminate against non-verbal children.  Many Autistics have trouble speaking, trouble writing, and tremendous amounts of anxiety, which make it even harder for them to take tests in a strange, time-limited, pressured situation than even typical children do.  Additionally, most of the neurological/ psychological/ educational  evaluations that are currently given are administered verbally - with the examiner asking questions verbally and expecting verbal answers from the student within a limited timeframe. 

These evaluations are not actually testing intelligence, they are testing the child’s speaking abilities.  The two are not the same, and should be separated accordingly.  You would not test a blind person’s intelligence by showing them a photo of something and asking, “What’s this?”.  If they could not answer that question, you would not automatically diagnose that blind person with an intellectual disability. In the same way that you can not test a blind person's inelligence through visually-based testing, you can not test a non-verbal child’s intelligence through a verbally-administered test. 

Every single day, however, the intelligence of nonverbals is unfairly tested.  They are, as a result, given very low IQ scores, which then exclude them from schools that might actually teach them something and condemn them to lives full of rote learning of “basic skills”.  In this way, nonverbal students often have their academic and intellectual needs undermined and  ignored by schools and by society.  By the time most schools get around to academics with nonverbal students (if that ever happens), the nonverbal students are already far behind their typical peers, not because they aren’t smart, but because their educations have been ignored for so many years, all based on the misconceived notion that they have no ability to learn

People are gratefully starting - very slowly - to turn this around, at least in small research groups at some universities.  At Penn State, a Communications and and Disorders group is focusing on literacy skills and teaching nonverbal Autistic children how to read, as early as age 3. The idea is to make them as self-sufficient and give them as much access to communication as possible via reading and writing and/or typing, and to do this all while teaching them age-appropriate academics (see more HERE).

Another study that was performed by a Special Education group at Columbia University is showing that many nonverbal students can learn very well but are simply not being taught because schools greatly underestimate their intelligence based on their limited verbal skills (see more HERE).  So these ideas are finally coming to light, but more people in the fields of psychology and education need to recognize and correct their widespread misconceptions about nonverbal children and adults, and help get them fair and equal opportunities, in school and in life.

When my son underwent his Neuropsychology Evaluations, he presented with a very low IQ score because of his trouble speaking.  As a result of those scores, the psychologists, doctors, social workers, speech therapists, and teachers all told us he “was very severe”.  They basically told us he wouldn’t be able to do much of anything - ever.  They recommended the most isolated, segregated special education classes the city had to offer and they gave us very little reason to hope, and these evaluations and recommendations went onto my son’s IEP, which destroyed any chance he had at getting into any school - regular or special needs - that would even attempt to teach him anything at all.  The actual goals on his IEP were “learn to say “yes” and “no”, learn to respond to someone calling his name, sits at his desk for 15 minutes”.  That’s it.  They had no intention of teaching him a single thing.

Since I had spent many years working in a Developmental Psychology lab at Harvard Medical School after doing my masters at Harvard, I knew about a variety of IQ tests.  After the first round of disastrous tests, we paid to get private testing done.  They still gave him the verbal tests alone.  Since my insisting was not enough, I had to get lawyers involved to get them to administer the IQ tests traditionally given to deaf children, the Leiter tests*, where there is no speaking, questions are written down, and answers are chosen by the student from a selection of written cards and picture cards (and where the questions are still as hard as in the typical verbal test), as I wanted them to test his intelligence, not just his speaking ability.  As I suspected, his IQ scores on the Leiter tests came back as “above average”.  This was only a few weeks after the typical verbal tests were administered.  So nothing had changed other than the method of testing. 

We could not get the DOE to change the old evaluation information on the IEP, and even if we did, there are NO schools (private or public) that accept children who have "so little language" and still teach them age-appropriate academics.  We therefore decided to continue to homeschool my son.  However, much to our surprise, even after we showed the updated IQ scores to the teachers and therapists who had been working with our son at home, they still refused to believe his intelligence was typical (actually, above average).  When I asked them to teach him basic things like reading, writing, typing, and math, they scoffed at me and often told me I was being “unrealistic” and “delusional”.  Some of them even told me that teaching him such things would “harm him”, mentally, physically, and emotionally. 

We decided it was time to find new teachers, and I decided to take over the curriculum development and the preparation of my son’s lessons, to make sure he was being taught age-appropriate materials in a way that suited his learning style.  We were very lucky to find some really great teachers who truly believe in the children they work with, who hold my son to high standards. and who were amenable to having me direct my son’s educational goals. 

After working on the new age-appropriate curriculum for just 10 months, we have seen such a major change in my son’s abilities.  He is reading, spelling, typing, and mastering all the age-appropriate curriculum, in math, reading/ELA, science, social studies, and art.  In some subjects, like reading and spelling, he is even working well above his grade level.   Most importantly, however, he has also been enjoying himself in his lessons a lot more, and showing a lot more confidence and pride in his work.  It has become evident that he was bored and, frankly, insulted, by the slow pace and low expectations of his previous teachers and therapists.

The few great teachers we found were definitely the exceptions, however, and not the norm.  Of the 25+ teachers we interviewed, most teachers we met with still held on to outdated, incorrect, damaging notions about Autistic, nonverbal children.  They kept insisting how much less we should be expecting from our son, and in order to back up their insults, they’d tell us “Well, it’s not just me. This is what the schools think as well”. 

Special education teachers are in such critical positions when it comes to our children.  They can make or break their futures simply by what they believe our children can do.  So teachers really need to re-examine their thoughts about the intellectual capabilities of non-verbal children.  They should not neccessarily just do "what the school says" they should do.

As I’ve said before, all children deserve to have their strengths fostered and encouraged, and their weaknesses supported.  Children with special needs deserve to be included in schools and in society, with the same respect that is given to their typical peers, and with the supports needed to achieve their greatest potentials.  In order for that to happen, education, psychology and society in general all need to quickly and drastically change their judgements about the intelligence of people with disabilities, especially those who have trouble speaking. 

(*Update note as of June 2018: My son continues to do grade-level work, and continues to score well on the Leiter Tests.  This year, when we went back to the same psychologist I mentioned having to fight with to test him appropriately, she not only quickly agreed to the tests this time but added "Isn't it awful how typical IQ tests misrepresent the IQs of non-speakers, really doing them a grave disservice?"  I am grateful for her turnaround.  But also - since anxiety is such a factor in one-day testing and autistics are especially sensitive to anxiety, The Leiter Tests can't be seen as a panacea.  Rather, the education industry needs to take seriously the child's actual school work from the past year(s) and not just their one-day performance on a standardized test.)

Nina Fiore graduated from Harvard College and from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with an EdM in Developmental Psychology and then worked for the Developmental Psychology research lab at Harvard Medical School. Nina has also been at the forefront of digital development since the mid-1990s and was one of a small group that created and launched the Noggin Channel. She currently provides Digital Strategy for a variety of businesses via StudioFiore, advocates for autistic acceptance and inclusion via BrilliantFishNYC, is the founder and director of the Astoria Film Festival in Astoria NY which also offers STEAM Workshops for the community, and she creates curriculum, writes grants, and guides Organizational Planning for IEIs, all while managing her son's homeschooling.

Tags: education standards, education tools, educators as leaders, nina fiore, non verbal expression, speaking ability, special education services

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