The Best Words In Their Best Order: language and autism

Living with an adult who doesn’t use speech to communicate means that I spend a lot of time thinking about language. People often remark on the irony of a poet having a ‘non-verbal’ son but I have come to realise there are more connections between Dylan and myself than differences, not least in our approach to language. How can that be when words are a writer’s currency and Dylan has so few?

The Language Barrier

NPG 192; Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poets, it seems to me, are as interested in the way that words fail as in the way they work. When poets write it is from a place of agony. Language is inadequate. We make faltering choices and wrong turns. We cannot find the exact description for the light outside a window. We fail to find a way of distinguishing one feeling from another. Constantly we delete, discard, begin again. Our quest is for the ‘best words in their best order’ (Coleridge, 1827). No word should be wanted or wasted. We will work a piece over and over to find the ‘truth and beauty’ (Keats, 1820). Even then, some poets consider their entire oeuvre to be no more than work in progress. This difficult search for the right word is a process which my son also knows.

NPG 58; John Keats by Joseph Severn

John Keats

Poets vary in the time they spend writing but I cannot engage in it for more than a few hours. I find the experience mentally and physically exhausting. If I think about the agony of writing it helps me to understand why Dylan may choose silence. Consider how it might feel if communication were like this all the time. What if it is so difficult for Dylan to find the right words that ordering breakfast is as challenging as writing a poem? Or if he experiences the world in so many colours the words to differentiate between them don’t exist? If Dylan can hear sound above and below 20KHZ, how might he begin to utter a word? If his senses are flooded with stimuli, as some autistic people report, then is Dylan’s silence so surprising? It can be safer, sometimes, to say nothing at all (a state poets refer to as writer’s block). Language is only a representation of the world; words are at least one step removed from the phenomena they describe. As I have argued elsewhere, Dylan may experience the world more intensely and essentially than those of us who live behind the language barrier.

Three Writer’s Maxims

New Year's Day 2013 013Dylan does, however, need some strategies for communication and much of my time is spent trying to help Dylan to develop these. At the moment Dylan’s favoured methods are visual. Photographs approximate the thing that they represent most closely and communication can be reliable this way. I might use this photograph, for example, to explain a trip to The Old Horns. However, the specificity of the photograph also limits its usefulness. I couldn’t use the same photo to communicate that at some point today we’ll stop for a pint somewhere because ‘somewhere’ is general and can’t be photographed.

This reference to the general and the specific reminds me of three writers’ maxims, commonly used in creative writing workshops:.

  • The concrete not the abstract
  • The particular not the general
  • Show don’t tell

20130714_164902I know writers who get quite agitated about these maxims, arguing that poetry cannot be reduced to rules. I am aware that there are plenty of fine poems which break these rules. Subversive practice is, I know, often at the heart of the startlingly original. However as a starting point for writing poetry the maxims are not a bad framework to inform our choices about language.

I would, for example, urge a beginning writer not to use abstract nouns such as poverty or anxiety but to focus on concrete images to communicate these: show the poverty in the way she walks, I might say, or: don’t tell us he is worried; show it in the dart of his eyes. I would ask the writer for particular rather than general information: not music, but Bach’s Overture in D; not the pub, but The Waggon and Horses. Precisely which pub is the sort of detail that is important to Dylan too; he is particular, not general. Dylan is concrete, not abstract. Dylan shows me things, he does not tell. Dylan, I would argue, intuitively adopts a writerly approach.

Flipping The Maxims

Dylan cannot, however, live wholly in the particularity; he needs ways of thinking about pubs in general and of understanding abstract concepts such as love and fear. As a writer I spend my time supporting students to make their writing concrete and particular; realising that my work with Dylan must travel in the opposite direction can feel quite challenging.

Although Dylan hasn’t engaged with communication systems that have been offered to him in the past there have been recent indications that he may be more receptive. Dylan has moved, for example, from using only deictic gestures (pointing to request, declare or ‘share the world’) to copying my use of representational gestures such as mimicking drinking and driving (not at the same time of course). This is an important shift in that it signals Dylan’s developing awareness of communication and its uses (I have written about Dylan’s use of gesture  here and about his use of speech here).

Symbols and signs can offer a good staging post between the specificity of photographs and the abstractions of language. I used these with Dylan when he was younger but he wasn’t particularly responsive then. In due course my signing tailed off and, without regular practice, I forgot the signs I knew. I suspect that Dylan wasn’t ready for the introduction of symbolic language at the time, but his recent interest in representational gesture has encouraged me to try again. ‘An idea in the highest sense of that word’, Coleridge reminds us, ‘cannot be conveyed but by a symbol’ (Coleridge, 1817).


Makaton is a language programme based on British Sign Language which combines signs with symbols and speech. In a previous post I’ve referred to the tendency of parents of autistic children to use gesture and facial expression so makaton feels like a natural and comfortable development for me. I’m hopeful that signing might be the next step for Dylan’s development in that it includes abstract concepts but makes these concrete by representing them through hand and finger pictures.

fingermanPractising signing recently I was reminded of one of my favourite movies, Stand and Deliver (1988). The film tells the true story of how a group of students at Garfield High, East Los Angeles, pass an AP Calculus test against the expectations of school and community, thanks to the dedication of their teacher Jaime Escalante. It is a wonderful movie which I’ve used for years with my students in order to explore key educational and social justice issues. It is also a marvellous source of examples of supporting the learning of students who aren’t used to succeeding and who lack confidence. Señor Escalante understands that his role is to give his students strategies for learning and that in Maths – like language, a subject of signs, symbols and abstraction – that means making learning concrete. One of the tricks Escalante offers his students is a method for calculating their Times Tables on their fingers; come on Fingerman, he says to one of his students who is hesitating to solve a problem: you can do it Fingerman.

I’ve been feeling a bit like Fingerman as I try to build signing into my everyday language practice. It’s early days yet but Dylan seems to enjoy watching me. Even if he doesn’t always attach meaning to the signs, I get the sense that he finds them pleasing aesthetically. This week I was signing the comment in Dylan’s link file, reading back what the care staff had reported about his day. As I signed, Dylan watched me intently, copying back my gestures. I was conscious of the dance of our hands through the air, drawing shapes and objects, describing actions and feelings. There was, I thought, a truth and beauty to our hands; they were searching for the best words in their best order.



Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817) Biographia Literaria
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (12th July 1827) Table Talk
John Keats (January 1820) Ode on a Grecian Urn
Ramón Menéndez (1988) Stand and Deliver

John Keats by Joseph Severn
oil on canvas, 1821-1823, dated 1821
National Portrait Gallery

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke
oil on canvas, dated 1795
National Portrait Gallery

8 thoughts on “The Best Words In Their Best Order: language and autism

  1. I love the way you weave your personal experience with Dylan together with your professional experience as a writer and educator. The is something profoundly integrated about your approach to life that I find inspiring.


    • Thank you! That’s a lovely thing to say. You know I don’t usually set out to make such links in my posts but they sort of collect up like a snowball as I go. I love the way that keeping a blog helps me to find the integrated bits of my life – I’m not sure how aware I’d be of them without this. I actually thought I was going to write a post about fish this week but as you can see it became something else! Fish next week perhaps 🙂 Thanks for reading – lovely to hear from you, Liz


  2. I find that when my speech is altered, for whatever reason, signing or gesturing helps my brain to get over the glitch. It also functions mostly predictably with my issues. Sometimes singing helps too, if my right side isn’t working. Z used to identify his feelings or a sensory exprience with images that, until I understood what exactly he was attending to, and identifying with, caused some exasperation with using picture cues. I was very pleased that he would attempt to communicate emotion and emotional needs by insisting on touching particular images. I was just, at the time, too stuck on what they were ‘supposed’ to be or to do, too literal myself, to understand. oh, also for some reason when he lost his speech, i ignored him and made him sign or gesture, but also I got rapt attention, eye contact, and a response to commands, if I spoke or whispered to him in French. So, then his only words were singsongy french. shrugs

    I have found it a point of interest to notice helps for stroke patients and stutterers that assist with whatever gets in the way of some non-verbal persons. I have also noticed that sensory processing therapies can assist with stroke patients and others with glitches.

    Since I am often upset in your comments, I want to share that he is graduating from high school in 10 days! One last test and we made it!


    • Hi Elisa – fantastic news about your son! Just ten days! You must feel so proud and relieved. I wish you all the fortune and blessings for the next step. I love your comment because it reminds me that how we make sense of our children signing or using pictures or speech is critical. Thinking about it, I’m sure there are times when Dylan has *looked* at a picture to tell me what he wants, so thinks that I have seen his eyes move and understood him (which I haven’t) – so then he doesn’t understand why I ask him again perhaps. As you say, touching the picture is a huge help and I think Dylan does sort of get that he needs to touch it for me to understand – though I do still have to remind him. Interesting too what you say about French. My daughter is a linguist. She used to use French quite naturally all the time around the house – I’d tell her to speak to her brother in English, to stop making things so extra difficult for him. Actually, reading your comment, I am chiding myself for not remembering that communication works in all those other ways too. Her french whisper was probably clearer (and more comfortable for Dylan) than my urgent English 🙂 Thank you!


  3. Hello Liz,

    It is so interesting to read about your son and how you communicate, for us it is so different but there are many similarities. There are too many words for my daughter, she has communicated very clearly from an early age, but the vast vocabulary she has does not enable her to communicate how she feels or what her anxieties are. Even with all these words she doesn’t always understand why she feels the way she does, tonight for the umpteenth time she feels sick and has woken us in the night. There are words of anger, frustration, sadness, despair. I am afraid I have run out of the words that comfort because words never seem to comfort however many we know or use. Sometimes all these words just trap us in never ending circles, so much is said but we get nowhere.

    We rely too much on these words, I think that pictures, images and perhaps trying to use signing may helps us. Because she has words we assume she can use them but they are not always tools of communication. It sounds like you are making progress with your son, it has made me think about how I communicate with my daughter. Thank you for your post, I am glad you didn’t write about fish!



    • Hi Tinc – these differences across the spectrum are so interesting – here is Dylan with his absence of words and your daughter with plenty. But as you say there are similarities too. I can relate to your daughter – it’s the inadequacy of words on the other side of the coin, where you have a stack of them but you can’t make them do what you want. Very interesting to hear that your daughter reports feeling ‘sick’. Dylan has just started saying this word repeatedly. I don’t know where he has learned it. He has only been sick a handful of times in his life and not recently. I can’t remember when I was last sick. Perhaps he has seen others being sick at school and day care? And I’m not sure how he is using it. I wondered if he really meant ‘hungry’ – I sometimes have to remind myself that a young man of 20 has different metabolism to a woman in her mid-50s and a reasonable gap between meals to me might not satisfy him 🙂 He seems to realise ‘sick’ is connected with ‘tummy’ so I’ve sort of assumed he means hungry. But perhaps it is some other discomfort somewhere. He has never actually been sick after telling me he is! So I have been taking it as a cue to feed him but I’m really not sure. Reading about your daughter made me realise that Dylan might not actually know either. Thank you! Liz


  4. This post reminded me of the film Children of a Lesser God – at least I think this is the film I remember – in which a young deaf woman forges her own form of communication (and art) through movement and signing and refuses to lip read. As you point out, communication is broader than language whilst poetry is the use of language that most draws attention to the strength as well as the limitations of words.
    Thanks Liz- a great post.


    • Hi Caroline – I love your final sentence! That sounds like a pretty good definition of poetry to me: ‘the use of language that most draws attention to the strength as well as the limitation of words’. Wow. I like it. A lot 🙂 I had forgotten about that movie for years but remembered it last semester and used it on my first year ‘ways of knowing’ module to discuss issues around inclusion. There are aspects of it which look rather dated now but all the political and philosophical issues are there, as well as some interesting reflections on communication and language, as you say. I like the fact that the young woman who took the main part was from the deaf community rather than acting school. Plus of course there’s the added bonus of the marvellous William Hurt listening to Bach 🙂 Glad you liked the post, x


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