Why AAC is a Human Right for Non-Speaking Autistics and Disabled People

The minute I wake up, my mind is active. I do not think in words. I am about as pure a visual thinker as you can get. I can visualize my life like a film, and pause at certain points, zoom in, zoom out, and rotate my viewpoint.

I don’t think to myself, “I’m going to make some coffee,” when I want coffee. I see the coffee in my mind, that dark brown steaming liquid in my favourite cup with the words “I am sarcastic periodically” with “sarcastic” written in elemental form as SArCaSTiC.

I can mentally go through all the types of spoon I have in the cutlery drawer, and I can visualize the whole process in multiple formats: video recording, diagrammatic, flow chart, the list goes on…

This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Having a near-photographic memory and being able to visualize things in such detail, in multiple formats. Well, there is one problem, and that’s when I need to translate these thoughts into a spoken description.

The Broca’s area of the brain (the area that is responsible for speech production) also acts like Google Translate to convert images/videos to spoken word; however, my version of Google Translate is not well-developed, the coding is not perfect. There are days where I cannot effectively translate at a reasonable speed, or days where I cannot translate at all.

What is the result of this inefficient translation process? On some days, my spoken words are quite a few grades lower in articulation than the detailed flowcharts, logic diagrams, circuits, and videos that fill my mind. “Like,” “um,” “and um,” “thing,” “yeah,” “sort of like,” and other relatively poor uses of English will frequently feature in my sentences. My word choice and pronunciation is also affected, often significantly.

But there are harder days. On some days, my brain will dump spoken communication to /dev/null and return 0 on the coding loop. I am rendered speechless.

But that does not mean I do not have thoughts.

Never assume I don’t have thoughts just because I am not speaking. It is just that my in-development Google Translate is not functioning. My head is filled with images, but my Broca’s area in my brain has decided to go on strike for a while because it has a hard-enough time doing the 7am to midnight job as it is.

So what I do on those days, when my Broca’s area is on strike? I could give it a pay rise. What would that involve? Over-medicating myself with caffeine. And using stimulant medications that really are not good for me in the long run as they are a temporary solution to a long-term problem, and anyhow I really should not be doing this whilst I have a heart condition and an endocrine problem.

So a pay raise is not really an option in the long run.

The only sensible solution is to give my Broca’s area a holiday.  I don’t speak.

Oh no! You think. What would I do without speech!?

Simple. I have the ability to type on my phone. I have an app that I can type on with large print letters, and if I press a button, it will dictate what I have typed. I even have the amusing choice of four different English accents.  Others use tablets or devices specifically-designed for AAC (augmentative and alternative communication).

Now, this is not unusual amongst autistics. I know many autistics who don’t speak at all, or who speak “part time.” Their reasons may not be exactly the same as mine, but I have heard that my issues are actually relevant to autism. Autistics have a higher incidence of having a condition called apraxia.

Apraxia is, putting it in basic and brief terms, when your brain and body don’t communicate well. For me, it means that I walk right into doors and walls, I cannot throw or kick with any real accuracy, I can desire to pick something up but throw it at someone instead and wonder why on earth I did that.

I remember the terrifying-but-morbidly amusing incident where I wanted to chop a spring onion but ended up throwing the knife into the wall– and it actually jammed itself into the wall!

So, don’t put pressure on us autistics if we can’t speak– we aren’t being willful or rude. We genuinely have a neurological programming syntax error that we cannot work around. We may type on devices and have the device speak for us.

Some of us may use sign language. I have actually tried to learn British Sign Language, but my apraxia is a huge barrier to this. Some of us with more severe apraxia than what I describe in the paragraph above may point at letters on a large board.

It’s not weird. It’s not something to mutter, “Why can’t you just speak?” about. We aren’t being obnoxious. We aren’t “crazy.”

There are multiple ways of communicating.

Speaking is not the only way.