Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Autism and Sensing


As a parent of a boy with autism, Nancy Bekhor discovered a way of being that assisted her to be more open and available to the non-verbal-realm of her child for their mutual benefit. I invited her to ask me some questions about Nancy Bekhor sensing in the context of autism. Here’s our interview.

The term, NONVERBAL seems to have a different meaning in the following two contexts of autism
1) Highly logical individuals, with so called ‘Asperger Syndrome’, who have difficulty with understanding the ‘non verbal’ aspect of conventional speech. This shows up, for example, as missing the ‘joke’ or sarcasm… basically where words themselves do not convey %100 of meaning intended.

2) On the other hand, the ‘non verbal’ realm, which you speak of in your book, Autism and Sensing, is a mode of information communicated by feeling, intuition, sensation… a place of art, ‘knowing without asking or learning’ (as with savants). Here the more typical individual has difficulty understanding.

Are these 2 different meanings or different degrees of non-verbal?

They are definitely two different experiences entirely.

There is NONVERBAL LANGUAGE DISORDER (disorder in NONVERBAL language systems such as body language, intonation, facial expression) and being FUNCTIONALLY NON VERBAL. Totally different conditions. Though those who have one can also have the other or have only one of these… same as one can have blond hair and be short or one or the other.

Now Social Emotional Agnosia seen in Aspergers is a NONVERBAL LANGUAGE DISORDER and means people can’t naturally perceive any meaning to facial expression, body language, intonation unless overtly taught it. This leads them to compensate through logic, intellect and because they generally don’t easily sense this missing realm they develop high intellect rather than high ability to sense pattern, theme, feel.

By contrast those with significant sensory or sensory perceptual deficits are not necessarily impaired in the social-emotional realm so it is more natural for them to expand into that realm as a compensation for sensory or sensory perceptual deficits. This is whether because they are blind, deaf, deaf-blind or the perceptual equivalents of meaning deaf (verbal agnosia), meaning blind (visual agnosia) or both.

In other words human beings can be more or less sensing, but if they ALSO have significant sensory or sensory perceptual deficits AND they have no neurological obstacles to sensing (such as Social Emotional Agnosia) then they will be reasonably more likely to become more highly reliant on sensing pattern, theme, feel through whichever sensory perceptual systems are still intact.

So it HAPPENS that there is no sensory perceptual reason for Aspies to be FUNCTIONALLY NONVERBAL in the sense of being speechless. But those who have significant meaning deafness and meaning blindness may have significant struggles to acquire SEMANTICS to speech and will then lack the PRAGMATICS too. Depending on personality and whether they do or don’t additionally have Oral Dyspraxia, Speech Aphasia or Selective Mutism, those with significant meaning deafness/meaning blindness will often be echolalic. Many who have speech and communication disorders (including echolalia) will then be more subject to secondary Selective Mutism. So it HAPPENS that those most likely to become highly sensing as a COMPENSATORY ADAPTATION for significant sensory perceptual disorders will also be those most likely to be functionally non-verbal.

Saying that, SOME will develop fluent type-speaking and some have progressed to functional speech and still remain highly sensing.


Do the highly logical individuals described in the first paragraph also have no access to that non-verbal-realm of the second?


What you’re actually asking is whether

a) having Social Emotional Agnosia would reduce one’s ability to be aware of the System of Sensing – yes, I think so, in the same way that if one is born blind one may be unaware of the experience of color except by translating through a system that’s still intact.


b) developing highly level compensatory reliance on intellect over intuition/sensing would leave the ability to sense underdeveloped – yes, I think that will generally be so.


Is the Aspie’s path toward sensing therefore as barred as those with typically developed neurology?
It has been said by various philosophers that anyone is barred access (to sensing) due to over reliance on linear thought, verbal communication and mental focus. Further that there is something of great value to humanity in this realm of sensing but unfortunately people ‘do not know what they do not know’.

Yes, I have tended to find many Aspies are not strong at sensing. BUT I have found that some who were diagnosed with autism and then developed speech by mid-late childhood could appear to have Aspie features but were still highly sensing. By contrast, I have met a far higher percentage of those with autism who are functionally non-verbal, even great type-speakers, who were highly sensing. In other words I don’t think its set in stone but there’s some general observations that those limited to linear thought, mental focus and verbalising tend to be more ‘interpretive’ and less sensing. Saying that, if I need my computer fixed I’d need an Aspie 😉 If I need a navigator for my soul, I need someone who is good at sensing.

I also think that non-linear thought is common in certain personality traits… like the idiosyncratic-schizotypal pattern, the exhuberant-cyclothymic pattern, where the conscientious-obsessive/compulsive personality trait pattern is a more linear thinker as is the somewhat ‘paint by numbers’ Sensitive-Avoidance and those two are more commonly diagnosed with Aspergers.

So the degree to which one is sensing versus interpretive would be influenced by personality, neurological integration, the presence of sensory-perceptual deficits etc.


Could the different autism focus that is referred to above be simply a parallel to the common human traits of being mathematical or artistic. Some type of right or left brain dominance to which these differences are ascribed? 


Not sure about the right/left brain side as people can develop traditionally ‘right brain’ functions in areas of the left hemisphere etc. Equally, there are linear and non-linear thinkers who are logical/mathematical and I’m a systematician but I can sense systems, so I can combine the two wonderfully. I’m also have a strong idiosyncratic trait which is very non-linear in its thinking which is probably why. But there will be those who are more OCPD in their style, and more linear, who will also be logical/mathematical and will be analytical but not sensing.

Similarly there are those who do quite constrained, quite ‘linear’ art and really struggle to let go, explore, feel the art. So it really depends where the art or logical-mathematical styles come from… what personality and neurology package they’re in.


Are we really talking about a problem with the word ‘autism’ having 2 different meanings? and this is not helpfully described by the word ‘spectrum’. Or are the 2 types interwoven?


Hmm. Well I think we can talk about one form of autism as relating to over reliance on intellect, linear thinking, verbal communication skills at the expense of sensing and another form of autism involving significant obstacles to traditional intellect, yet with often intact emotional intelligence and intuition, and tendency toward non-linear thinking but all at the expense of smoother executive functioning and verbal communication skills.

As for the use of the word ‘spectrum’ there, that gets confusing because from this angle is is not really a spectrum at all, no more than a pear and a cabbage both being carbs, they are not as similar as a pear and apple.

And then, saying that, there are those from the autistic end who acquired enough language skills and executive functioning to be presumed ‘Aspie’… which is really more about our stereotypes (that all verbal autistic people must be Aspie and all non-verbal one’s Autie).

So, all clear as mud 🙂

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.