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Understanding the Mind of a Nonverbal Person with Autism

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Autism: The Way I See It
by Temple Grandin
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | March/April 2009

While huge advances have been made over the last few years in understanding “higher functioning” individuals with autism/Asperger’s, we still know quite little about the world of the more severely affected individual with autism. In 2007, Tito Mukhopadhyah wrote a book entitled The Mind Tree that opened the mind of a nonverbal boy with severe autism to the world. Tito’s new book, How Can I Talk if My Lips Don’t Move? is equally compelling, highly informative, and should be required reading for everybody who works with nonverbal individuals with autism.

Presumed Intelligence
Tito’s mother Soma was a brilliant teacher. She invented all kinds of innovative ways to teach her nonverbal, profoundly autistic son to write and type without assistance. Right from the beginning, Soma assumed Tito was not stupid, so she exposed her young child to many interesting things. She also read to him constantly. She read him children’s books and adult books such as Plato, Keats, history, and geometry. When she played with him on a swing she explained the physics of a pendulum. She also took him to many interesting places such as the outdoor food market, other people’s houses, and the train station. Even though Tito had all the characteristics of a person with low functioning autism, he was absorbing large amounts of knowledge. Soma had the good instinct to know that she needed to fill his brain with information.

Sensory Jumble and Panic
Tito’s sensory world was a jumble of colors, sounds, and smells. Hearing was his dominant sense and his mother’s voice reading to him became a familiar sound that provided order in the chaos. Any little changes in his routine caused panic and a temper tantrum. Tito describes flicking the lights on and off because it brought order to the overwhelming scattered jumble of sensory overload. Tito is mono-channel and he can only attend to one sense at a time. Seeing and hearing at the same time is impossible and his best learning occurred in the morning before he got tired.

Anything new was totally frightening because the feeling, sight or sound of a new object was so intense it caused sensory overload and panic. Soma slowly introduced new things and Tito gradually learned to tolerate them. When he got overwhelmed, Tito explained how flapping calmed him down and made him happy. If he had been allowed to do it all day he would have never learned anything. Small amounts of “stimming” were allowed so he could calm down.

Tito Hates Unfinished Tasks and Things
Soma figured out how to motivate completion of a task by doing part of it and then leaving a part unfinished to motivate Tito to finish it. She used a hand over hand technique to teach skills such as putting on a shirt, putting on shoes, and how to hold a pencil. Touch provided Tito with more reliable information than vision. To teach a task such as putting on a T-shirt, she placed her hands over his hands and “walked” his hands through the entire task. Gradually she left more and more of the task unfinished so Tito had to finish it. For example, she stopped helping when his arms were through the sleeves and the shirt was half-way over his head. Tito had to pull the shirt the rest of the way himself. This teaching had to be done slowly over several months so Tito’s motor memory would learn the entire task.

Difficulty Naming Objects
A psychologist testing Tito could mistakenly think he could not name common objects. He can but he must do it in a roundabout associative manner. His mind is totally associative. To retrieve the name of an object, he has to be given time to find the word in his memory by providing the definition of the word. Writing the definition enables his associative way of thinking to find the word. When shown a picture of a flower, he is not able to simply say “flower.” He has to say, “A soft petaled part of a plant is a flower.” Tito was able to write this definition because he had been exposed to words such as petal. Soma constantly showed him interesting things and pointed to the parts and named them.

This wonderful book will provide parents, educators, and everybody who works with nonverbal individuals insights that will help them work more effectively with this population. Dr. Margaret Bauman, Neurologist atMassachusetts GeneralHospitalemphasizes that we wrongly assume that 75% of nonverbal individuals are mentally retarded. The more we learn about the inner mind of individuals with severe autism, the better able we become to accurately gauge their many abilities and help them achieve their hidden potential.

Mukhopadhyah, Tito Rajarshi. (2008). How Can I Talk if My Lips Don’t Move? Arcade Publisher:New   York.

Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2009. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Thank you for providing the information in “Difficulty naming objects.” The statement about associative manner and retrieving a word applies to many students I have worked with. I didn’t know how to explain this to some of the regular ed teachers. Now, I have a name for what is happening with some of the students.