As a special education teacher who continues to work with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder I often hear the term "non-verbal" bandied about amongst colleagues. I, too, at one point was guilty of using the term "non-verbal" with impunity when referring to my students. The obvious aspersions that sully the child you are referring to as "non-verbal" aside, the problem with using the term "non-verbal" is that there is no universally agreed upon definition when paired with an autism diagnosis. I think that bears repeating: when it comes to autism, the term "non-verbal" does not have a definition.
I define the term non-verbal as someone who does not currently possess the ability to formulate speech. I have had students on the spectrum who could not, even on their best days, formulate speech. Others define the term "non-verbal" as the inability of the person to get their needs and wants met. This definition, however, is greatly flawed! The primary flaw with this definition is that parents can tell the difference between their infant's cries. Think back to when your child was an infant. Could you not easily distinguish between their "I'm hungry" or "I've soiled my diaper" cry? Of course you could, you're a parent! Developmentally, infants are not capable of formulating speech. Infants are capable, though, of developing a system of differentiated cries to communicate a particular want or need. If we follow the aforementioned flawed logic of people who define "non-verbal" as those "incapable of getting their needs and wants met" then by following their definition, infants who by the act of a specific cry can get a need or want met are verbal. WRONG!
This is but one reason why educators, parents, etc. must define the terms they are using when writing an IEP, multidisciplinary team report or discussing a student! I believe that my job as a teacher is to work in tandem with the parent toward mutually agreed upon goals and objectives. Before this can happen, both the teacher and the parent need to understand the language being used. When we fail to define our terms, we run the risk of miscommunication.
I first learned of the importance of defining our terms when I was in graduate school. During a rather ardent discussion I was having with a professor, she stopped the conversation midstream and said "let's define our terms". Once the terms we were discussing were clearly defined she was able to explain where and how my argument was flawed. Years later, that seemingly small gesture by this professor, would redefine (sorry, I just couldn't resist the pun) how I approach the process of communicating with colleagues and parents.
With that in mind, let's look at some common terminology that ALL parents as well as educators should familiarize themselves with so that they can be better informed when conversing with the people charged with educating their child(ren).
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) = students with a disability have the right to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD or AUT) = a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social interactions and social communication and by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) = psychological therapy that uses techniques developed from the objective analysis of observable behavior to make changes to socially significant behaviors that are abnormal or harmful
Mand = the ability to request a reinforcer to be delivered (the term "mand" was first coined by B.F. Skinner in his book Verbal Behavior)
Multi-disciplinary Team Report (MDT) = a group of educational professionals with varied experience, disciplines, qualifications, and skills who coordinate the contributions of each profession in order to reach a consensus on a specific student
Communication = the process participants use to exchange information, ideas, needs and desires
Speech = a verbal means of communicating
Language = a socially shared code or conventional system for representing concepts through the use of arbitrary symbols and rule-governed combinations of those symbols
Phonemes = the smallest unit of speech sound that can be used to make one word different from another word (e.g. the word "CAT" is comprised of three different phonemes /C/, /A/, and /T/)
Phonemic Awareness = is the ability to hear and manipulate individual phonemes
Phonological Awareness = the ability to hear and manipulate larger units of sound, such as beginning or ending sounds, rhymes and syllables
Fine Motor Skills = small movements that engage the small muscles found in the fingers, toes, wrists, lips, and tongue (e.g. picking up small objects, grasping a pencil, opening a package of food, etc.)
Gross Motor Skills = larger movements that engage the large muscles found in the arms, legs, torso, and feet (e.g. sitting, moving your arms, rolling over, etc.)
Multi-sensory = involving several physiological senses (i.e. touch, sound, smell, hearing, etc.)
Hierarchical = a system in which things are placed in a series of levels with different importance
Systematic = using a careful system or method
Psychomotor = motor action directly proceeding from mental activity
Generalize = being able to use a skill or behavior learned in one environment and/or with one person in multiple environments and/or with multiple people
Assistive Technology = any item, piece of equipment, or product that increases, maintains, or improves the functional capabilities of a person with a disability (e.g. a rubber pencil grip would be considered a low tech piece of equipment whereas an iPad would be considered high tech)
Data = facts or information used to calculate, analyze, or plan something Progress Monitoring = is the frequent and ongoing collection of information (i.e. data) about a student's performance
M-COMP (Math - Computation) = a timed (usually 8 minutes in length) math computation assessment
M-CAP (Math - Application) = a timed (usually 8 minutes in length) math application assessment
R-CBM (Reading - Curriculum Based Measurement) = a timed (usually 1 minute in length) reading fluency assessment
Baseline = a minimum or starting point used for comparisons
Benchmark = a standardized test that serves as a basis for evaluation or comparison
Modifications = the act or process of changing parts of something*
Adaptation = the process of changing to fit some purpose or situation*
You'll notice that I have asterisks next to "modifications" and "adaptation". In my opinion, making reasonable modifications or adaptations when required for persons with special needs is an ethically responsible practice, provided the change reduces the effect of characteristics of the person with the disability that are not relevant to the construct being tested and/or the primary focus of the task.
It is my hope that the next time you are talking with anyone about your child (but especially when you are at your child's IEP meeting) that you not only have a better understanding of some of the terminology being used but that you use some of the terminology in your conversation as a means of engaging those involved in your child's individual education plan.