olga bogdashina autism

Traditionally, language is looked on as one of the key prognostic factors in autism and the level of language and communicative competence achieved is seen as a measure of the outcome. Besides, language development is closely related to the development of social behaviour.

Establishing communication and understanding between any two people with different experiences and perceptions involves developing a common language.

And here we have questions:

  • What language are we discussing?
  • Is the verbal language the only language possible?

Language is typically defined as a system of symbols (words) and methods (rules) of combination of these symbols used by a section or group of people (e.g., a nation) that serves as a means of communication and formulating and expressing thoughts. It is conventional to identify signs in this definition as words. The error of mistaking the acoustic/written manifestation of language (reflected in speech) for language itself leads to the misconception that the language is necessarily verbal. However, though conventional, verbal (linguistic) words are not the only signs that satisfy the criteria of language. It is logical, therefore, to distinguish two types of languages – verbal (consisting of words) and non-verbal (consisting of non-verbal symbols). From this perspective, the assumption (expressed by some professionals) that non-verbal children ‘lack inner language’ is incorrect. Autistic individuals emphasise that all autistic people have a form of inner language even if they cannot communicate through conventional systems, such as typing, writing or signing (e.g., O’Neill; Williams).

We may hypothesise that autistic children (or at least some of them) ‘speak’ (even those who are non-verbal) a different language. Verbal language is sort of foreign to them. And as they do not learn it naturally earlier in their lives, then we have to help master their second language with the support of their ‘first language’ if we want to share a means of communication with them. So, what language do they speak?  They do possess their own language system, external and internal speech. Before we can teach them a ‘foreign language’ we have to learn theirs first in order to develop the ability to ‘interpret’ their messages at the initial stages of our communication with them.

All our earliest experiences are sensory. Babies are flooded with sensations through all their sensory modalities. With development and maturation, and by interacting with environment, babies learn to ‘sort out’ incoming information and stop ‘experiencing sensory flooding’ (Williams 2003). Sensory experience becomes transformed into verbal thought, and verbal thoughts become realised through this primary experience, in their ongoing interplay as alternately container and contained (Bion).

Sometimes pre-verbal experiences are described as ‘primitive’. However, it might be better conceptualised as ‘primary’ modes of experience because, although verbal ways of knowing become more dominant over time, they do not take place of, nor are they necessarily more complex than, more implicit ways of knowing (Charles). Although verbal capacities develop from the non-verbal ones, the two ways of knowing do not represent a continuum and they are not in opposition with one another; they develop alongside each other as two interactive systems, according to different sets of rules (Matte-Blanco 1975)

Although we possess both capacities of interpretation and comprehension of the world all our lives, one of them becomes dominant in very early childhood and develops rapidly. In non-autistic development the dominant side of interpretation (and later on, communication and thinking) is a verbal one, whereas in autism we may observe sensory-based thinking or, at least, a later transition of dominance from sensory to verbal route.

Non-autistic children learn to form categories and generalise. They unite things (not identical but serving the same function, for example) under the same label. They store concepts (not perceptual images and experiences). The outside world becomes conceptualised and represented and expressed in words that can be easily operated to create new ideas. In contrast, many autistic children often have difficulty moving from sensory patterns (literal interpretation) to an understanding of functions and forming concepts. For some, with severe sensory processing problems verbal language may be perceived as no more than noise that has nothing to do with either interaction or interpretation of the environment. With the sensory-based system being dominant, the sensory impressions (‘sensory concepts’) they store in their memory become templates for recognition and identification of things, people, events. It is at this stage that they develop their cognitive (‘non-verbal’) languages.  

Autistic children, like non-autistic ones, learn through interactions with the world, but this interaction is qualitatively different. They learn their language(s) through interaction with objects and people on the sensory level. That is why, their ‘words’ have nothing to do with conventional names for things and events we use to describe the function of these things and events. Their ‘words’ are not ‘envelopes’ but templates – if something ‘feels’ the same they know what to do about it; if the ‘feeling’ is a little bit different – they do not understand this ‘word’ and may be confused. Their ‘words’ are literal (- stored sensations produced by objects through interaction) and they ‘name’ them accordingly. One sense (sometimes several) becomes dominant for storing memories, developing ‘language’, and constructing thoughts. Here we may distinguish several ‘sensory-based languages’:

Visual language: They use visual images.

Tactile language: Children ‘speaking’ tactile language recognise things by touching them, feeling textures and surfaces with their hands, bare feet, or their cheeks. Through touch they get the information about the size and form of things, but not about their function or purpose. They store the information for later reference and may find similar objects (e.g., a plastic cup and a glass cup) to be completely different ‘words’ in their vocabulary because they ‘feel’ different.

Kinaesthetic language: Children learn about things through the physical movements of their body. Each thing or event is identified by certain pattern of body movements. They know places and distances by the amount and pattern of the movement of the body.

Auditory language: Children remember objects and events by ‘sound pictures’. If the object is ‘silent’, they may tap it to recognise it by the sound it produces.

Smell language: Objects and people are identified by smell.

Taste language: Children lick objects and people to feel the taste they give on the tongue.

Each child may use one or several ‘languages’ to make sense about the world. Given perceptual differences, including sensory perceptual problems (fragmentation, hyper- or hyposensitivities, etc.), one or several systems may become inconsistent and/or meaningless, and they have to use those that are reliable (different for different individuals) to check the information they are flooded with. Each child has unique sensory perceptual profile and has acquired (voluntarily or involuntarily) compensations and strategies to recognise things and make sense of the world. One and the same child may use different systems at different times depending on many factors that can influence the ‘perceptual quality’, such as stress, fatigue, ‘environmental sensory pollution’ (bright lights, noise), etc.


Bion, A. (1963) Elements of Psycho-Analysis. London: Heinemann.

Bogdashina, O. Communication Issues in Autism. London: JKP.

Charles, M. (2001) ‘A “confusion of tongues”: Difficulties in conceptualizing development in psychoanalytic theories’, Human Nature Review, 28 March, 2001.

Matte-Blanco, I. (1975) The Unconscious as Infinite Sets: An Essay in Bi-Logic. London: Duckworth.

O’Neill, J. L. (1999) Through the Eyes of Aliens: A book about autistic people. London: JKP

Williams, D. (1996) Autism. An Inside-Out Approach. London: JKP.

Williams, D. (2003a) Exposure Anxiety – The Invisible Cage. London: JKP.

Written by Olga Bogdashina on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services