Can’t Communicate, or Won’t Communicate the Way You Want To?

In Western culture, there seems to be really only one acceptable method of communication: speaking out loud, hearing, making eye contact. Making a connection, as people sometimes say. When you aren’t together in person, talking on the phone is an option, and if you need to communicate to the masses, radio, television, text. This, what I am doing right now, typing something that you will later read, is an acceptable form of communication according to the hierarchy of communication styles, deemed a reasonable way to convey information and spread ideas amongst each other.

Then there are those ‘lesser’ forms of communication; Sign language, for example, or communication boards. Text to speech devices. Interpreters. These are sometimes labeled as assistive and augmentative communication devices, and they’re treated very much as second tier. Well, if you REALLY can’t communicate like a ‘real person,’ these things are standins that will work. They’re adaptations. They’re a way to work around the ways in which you are broken and unfit for society; if we must, we can work with these communication options but we’ll be sure to let you know that you, and your method of communication, are unreasonable.

And then there are those people who ‘can’t communicate.’ You know the ones, because you read about them in the news. The autistic boy who only grunts and squeaks, the developmentally disabled girl who refuses to talk, the adult who won’t even try speech therapy, the people who flap and make unexpected noises and don’t speak, won’t write, can’t use communication boards. These people, we are told, can’t communicate. They’re incapable of formulating and conveying thoughts to the people around them, which is one reason why they belong in conservatorships, should have people to speak for them, shouldn’t be allowed to communicate for themselves.

Is this really an issue of ‘can’t communicate,’ or ‘won’t communicate in a way that satisfies you’?

As many disabled people have themselves expressed and illustrated, there are myriad ways to communicate with the people around them—if the people around them are willing to take the time to learn how to communicate. People who are socialised to speak and view it as the norm might have trouble viewing it this way, but the fact is that they are expecting to be accommodated and want people to use their preferred communication style, the style they are most comfortable with, the style they can use most effectively.

What’s the difference between a French speaker requesting an interpreter in a US court, and an autistic woman requesting that her aide interpret for her in a health care meeting? Both have their own method of communication, one with its own syntax, complex cultural and personal history. Both are very fluent and articulate in their own languages, and it’s not their fault that the people around them refuse to communicate with them, that the world is filled with many different modes of communication and that all are actually perfectly valid and reasonable. It’s the people around them who act put-upon when it comes to accommodating their desire to be understood and to advocate for themselves.

This is an especially pressing and troubling issue with autistic children, who are often labeled as prone to behavioural outbursts and other ‘problems’ when they’re simply trying to communicate, or frustrated by people who won’t communicate with them. Rather than attempting to establish communication and work with a child individually, people instead impose their own views about communication and what is ‘right’ and then act surprised when a child wants, reasonably, to know why her methods aren’t ‘acceptable.’

Those of us who communicate through speech know that speech carries nuances. It’s not just about words carried back and forth between each other, but about tone and inflection, word order, the physical gestures we make when we speak. It’s not just about the literal words coming out of our mouths, then, but also about how we say them. We pick these subtle nuances up as we learn languages, and we apply them to our own speech; look at how the speech of children improves not just because they learn to articulate and their vocabularies grow, but also because they learn through imitation. They learn how to be cheeky and playful, how to be serious, how to sound worried. We learn to read emotion in speech and gestures.

Even the supposed height of communication, in other words (so to speak (I did it again)), isn’t just about the spoken language. It’s about those gestures, much like the maligned flapping, pointing, and other gestures of people on the autism spectrum. And it’s about those tones and sounds, again, much like the ‘outbursts’ or ‘abnormal’ noises that some autistic people make when they are in fact simply expressing their thoughts, conveying emotions, needing to say something.

When we talk about how people can’t communicate or refuse to communicate, what are we really saying about them? And more importantly, what are we saying about ourselves? Who is refusing to communicate in a dynamic where one person is reaching out and trying to be as clear, simple, and obvious as possible, and another person is ignoring the communication and choosing instead to berate the communicator for not doing it right? Why do we not acknowledge that autistics who use speech therapy and other tools aren’t ‘learning to communicate’? They’re learning a second language.