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