Using Non Verbal vs Non Vocal

It’s been almost 2 decades since my first-born son, Lucas starting showing signs of autism at the age of 21 months and that’s when my husband, Charles (who is a Emergency Medicine physician) first mentioned the possibility of autism. I was horrified at the thought of an autism diagnosis and in denial about Lucas’ delays telling my husband, I never, never wanted to hear the word autism again. Today I’m talking about non verbal vs non vocal.

Ready to learn more and turn things around for your child or client with autism? Sign up for my free 3-step guide!

Lucas was eventually diagnosed with autism and I went on to become a BCBA and a decade ago wrote my best-selling book, The Verbal Behavior Approach. I also earned a PhD and created two online courses for professionals and “gung-ho” parents which has already had several hundred participants from over 40 countries.

Since telling my husband I never wanted to hear the word autism again almost 2 decades ago, it is somewhat ironic that now I see, say, type, and read the word autism hundreds if not thousands of times each day.

Because I’m so entrenched in the autism field as both a parent and professional, the one autism term I come across almost every day is “nonverbal” and every time I hear that word, I cringe a little. So many parents and professionals describe their children or clients who are not yet speaking as “nonverbal” that the term really shouldn’t bother me, but it does.

As I describe in my book, everyone is verbal including newborn babies who cry to be fed or because they are in need of a diaper change. Yes, verbal behavior includes crying, holding out arms to be picked up, pointing to an item or picture, using sign language, and using a device to communicate. So when parents or professionals describe children as nonverbal, it is not accurate.

All children and adults are verbal, even those who do not speak yet. And, most children with autism who don’t speak and do not have good augmentative communication systems in place such as sign language to help them communicate do exhibit major problem behaviors that complicate programming.  You see, according to Dr. Mark Sundberg, over 95% of all problem behaviors are caused by the child not being able to make requests to get their needs and wants met.

Since we all are verbal, most ABA/VB practitioners, including me, prefer to use the term “non-vocal” or “minimally vocal” to describe children who are not yet talking or only using a few words.

Even more important than the terms we select, however, is that we need to learn better ways to teach children with autism to be more verbal and to be more vocal. I guess why I cringe a little when I hear the term non-verbal is because I feel that some people tend to “write off” these kids and don’t provide enough intervention to enable them to be a lot more verbal and possibly a lot more vocal too. Teaching verbal behavior is the first step to helping children with autism reach their fullest potentials.

To learn more about starting to turn autism around for your child or client with autism, make sure to download my free 3-step guide today.

Ready to learn more and turn things around for your child or client with autism? Sign up for my free 3-step guide!


  1. Good distinction. I never thought of the term non vocal.

    Btw in the 9 years of providing ABA I am luck enough that all but 4 of my students are vocal and verbal.

  2. As an SLP, I think of non-verbal as not using words and vocalizations as any sounds being produced. So, it would be highly unusual for someone to be non-vocal. I do agree that we don’t seem to have a good, descriptive term for the variety of communication behaviors displayed by “non-verbal” people.

    1. Agreed, this is my distinction of the two terms as well. Verbal refers to the expression of spoken words or the formation of words. Whereas vocal refers to sounds vocalized which could include speech, laughing, sobbing, singing, snoring etc.

    2. I agree with that! For an SLP, the things she mentioned like cooing are vocal…not verbal. Also, the gestures such as raising their hands to be picked up is considered non-verbal communication. It sounds like BCBA’s need to change their vocabulary possibly? I really feel like, as an SLP, we see it correctly. You can have non-verbal communication but still be communicating via gesture and vocals. But, verbal means actual articulation of words in my book.

      1. I see it both ways. When I teach crisis intervention, we talk about nonverbal and paraverbal communication. However, I believe Dr. Barbera is referring to the seminal work of Skinner called “Verbal Behavior,” and developed further by Sundberg and others, and the language used within that specialty. ABA does seem to re-appropriate terms at times, but usually to break some of the imprecision of past uses.
        Verbal operants provide really useful ways to understand, teach, and talk about the acquisition of language.
        As an example, I could chant or make sounds in the forest for fun, and while it is vocal, it isn’t verbal behavior, simply because there is no “listener” to communicate with.
        There may be a better term that isn’t quite as familiar in the current vernacular that would cause less confusion. Maybe Sundberg or Barbera can work on that, like Jack Michael did with the Motivating Operation concepts.
        However, just like our use of the term “consequences” in ABA as anything that occurs after a behavior, instead of something that is punishing, we’ll have to get used to the context of verbal behavior in the context of ABA.
        That being said, when talking to speech therapists or parents, I will either explain, or use their more familiar terms to clear up communication issues. Among ABA professionals, precision is most important, but among clients and other fields, the concepts take precedence.

  3. As an autism mom I would love an ebook that defines all the associated autism terms. My son is 14 and while he is often described as non-verbal I find myself explaining that it’s not that he can not speak it’s that he can not communicate. He can label hundreds of items, he has some immediate echolalia, and yet he is unable respond yes or no to a demand question. I’m stuck saying he can not functionally communicate. Thank you for your blog it is wonderful.

  4. I think non verbal should be continued used because they can not speak words non vocal would mean they have no voice what so ever. It doesn’t sound nice either way but unfortunately it is what it says s ?

Leave a comment