On Purpose Or By Accident

person's head with a target on it

Communicating without meaning to

  • The early form of communication: When newborns cry, they are communicating. We respond by giving them food or by picking them up. Babies don’t cry “on purpose”. Still, crying is how they got what they need
  • True for all of us, such as when we are annoyed and our face gives us away!
  • Other terms for this are: “accidental” or “unintentional”

Communicating on purpose

  • Another term for this is: “intentional”.
  • We don’t need to use language to communicate with intent.
  • We all use many ways to communicate. These include facial expressions, the tone of voice, and body language. When we speak, we use language to relate our experiences.

Communication can be both!

  • Adult communication may be on purpose (intentional) and “accidental” (unintentional).
  • People who can’t speak may learn to use their behaviors to communicate. Or they may use gestures and sounds. The person may not use language, but they are trying to get a message across.
  • This does not mean they don’t understand. They probably hear everything you are saying, even if they can’t respond.

How can I tell if the person is communicating on purpose?

  • .Do they make eye contact when they do a certain behavior? For example, pace and glance at you.
  • Is it something the person does over and over at the same time? For example, pace and glance at you when food is almost ready to be served.
  • Do they try again if nothing happens.? For example, pacing gets faster if food is not ready yet.
  • Do they do anything to try to be recognized? For example, pace closer to you and move toward your face.
  • If the answer to any of the above is “yes”, the person has some intentional communication.

What if someone has never learned to communicate on purpose?

  • Some people have never learned to communicate on purpose. This doesn’t mean that they can’t learn.
  • Or it can be someone who has not been given a reliable way to communicate.
  • This may be a person with a complex body. They may never have had a chance to take part in communication.
  • “These people are often overlooked or given up on when they need help the most.” (Robin Parker, PrAACticalAAC.org)
  • We can teach them how. AAC can be used to give someone power over their lives. We all deserve that chance.


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This short video clip shows a young child communicating with intent, but not using language.

Deepen Your Understanding

Communication may be intentional or accidental. This is true for all of us. Think of that time you worked really hard to make a nice meal for someone, and they didn’t show up on time. By the time they arrived, the food and the mood were ruined. You may have tried to hide your frustration behind a smile, but I bet that person had a good idea of how frustrated you were.

We all communicate through facial expressions, the tone of voice, body language, and posture. A newborn communicates, even if they don’t have the language yet to tell us what they need.

Language gives us a way to encode thoughts, events, and feelings, and sequence them into a narrative. When we use language to communicate, we do so with the intent that someone will understand the message.

We don’t need to use language to communicate with intent. When we use gestures and facial expressions, we may very well intend to convey something to our communication partner. Many people who are not able to use speech to “talk”, will use the above strategies to communicate as best they can. They, too, are intentional communicators. What they may lack is a way to express what they know using symbols and a grammar to form a narrative. This certainly makes communication more difficult.

This is not to say that they don’t understand. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume that, just because someone can’t talk, they can’t hear us. There are many reasons why someone might not be able to speak, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t “get” what we are saying. All people deserve to be treated with respect, and not talked over as if they were part of the furniture.

What about those who don’t appear to communicate intentionally at all? This may be due to having a complex body. I met a young man a few weeks ago with cerebral palsy. His brain was not able to most of his body to tell it what to do. His team assumed that he was not able to communicate at all and simply responded to stimuli in his environment. This proved not to be the whole story. After some exploration, we discovered that he could blink his eyes when requested. Think about it. To be able to blink on command meant that he had enough language to understand what we said, and respond. That is huge.

There may be some people who do not yet understand that communication means the exchange of information between two partners. Their communication may be accidental, through the use of behaviors and body language that reflect their interior states. Is this when we give up?

Is this when we say, “Nope, no language for you”? No. It is possible to teach the act of communicative exchange. We can find a way to show them that they can have an intentional impact on their world. We can help form that bridge between two human beings.
We shouldn’t give up. If we don’t try, we can never truly know what potential that person has.

“There is no greater burden than unfulfilled potential.” Charles Schulz